Hello. AsimovLives here.
I recently finished watching a new television series created by Amazon Studios and Scott Free called The Man In The High Castle, an adaptation for the screen of the novel of the same name by American science fiction author Philip Kindred Dick.
And I can’t believe I wrote those words above. It’s not the first time that a novel or short story by Philip K. Dick has been adapted for the screen, but that they did this one in particular.
I was first introduced to the works of Philip K. Dick (PKD henceforward) thanks to the film Blade Runner which motivated me to read the novel it was based on. From there I spent my late adolescence and early 20’s hunting down and reading all titles of PKD’s books I could put my hands on. Soon enough I found The Man In The High Castle. This story is both PKD’s most high concept work and, perhaps ironically, one of his most mysterious and esoteric. Well, not to the extent as such works like Valis, but it says something that the plot of the book was based on results from consulting the I-Chin while PKD was writing it.
The Man In The High Castle tells the story of an alternative world where the forces of the Axis won World War II and how the world was divided between the victors. In particular, the former country known as the United States of America, now divided between Nazi Germany with territories in the East, the Japanese Empire controlled West Coast and a buffer zone in-between mostly made of the region of the Rocky Mountains and the desert to the south.
What is probably most striking about the original novel is that it doesn’t concern much with the vast world at large but to the drama of a few characters and how they have adapted – or not – to this strange dark oppressive world in which the oppressed are not just the occupied but the occupiers as well. It is essentially a story about the defeated, how to live and adapt to a new culture and mentality, and to the strange forms of hope that can emerge. And the illusive resistance figure known as the Man In The High Castle who authored a book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, a man who, people claim, has seen further than anybody else and his book can shake the very fabric of reality. It’s a far more esoteric approach to the alternative universe genre than is common, and now it’s a television series!
Also, this is not the first time the names of Ridley Scott and PKD have been associated to a project. The first was Blade Runner.
This is the second project their names are on, as Scott is one of the major executive producers. And what Blade Runner is for filmed adaptations of PKD to the cinema, The Man In The High Castle will probably very well be for any other adaptations of his work to come to television: the standard to strive for. Yes, this series is really very good.
The story is set in 1962. For an entire generation of Americans, they lived under the subjugation of the Japanese Empire in the West and Nazi Germany in the East, and most have adapted to that reality, some even prospering by embracing the values of their overlords. One of the contented was Juliana living in the Pacific Coast, until her world is shattered by the murder of her half-sister Trudy by the Kempeitai, the imperial secret police. Before her death, Trudy gave Juliana a reel of film to hide from the secret police. When Juliana watches the film, to her shock she sees news images of the Allies winning the war and the defeat of their current overlords. The reel part of a film called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a mythical piece of resistance propaganda created by a mysterious figure only known as The Man In The High Castle. But the images are so realistic that it convinces Juliana they are a peek into another reality, probably the real reality. She wants to find more and meet the man responsible. But her boyfriend Frank is appalled at the idea, for he fears the consequences that commiserating with the resistance might bring to their lives, especially him since he’s of Jewish blood.
Juliana decides to finish her sister’s mission to bring the reel to Canyon City in the Neutral Zone, the buffer region created by the two victors, in theory a no-man’s land, in reality indirectly controlled by the Nazis through agents and payed mercenaries. Juliana fails to make contact with the resistance and soon realizes she is in danger. Meanwhile back in San Francisco, the Kempaitai are quick to connect Trudy to her sister and Frank and arrest him under orders of the sinister, ruthless and frightfully efficient Inspector Kido.
In the East, Joe Blake makes contact with the resistance and is put in charge to drive a truck to Canyon City which carries an hidden object to be delivered to the local resistance. The SS raids the hideout and Joe barely escapes capture, but not so the resistance leader, who is captured and brutally tortured by Obergruppenführer John Smith, the extremely intelligent, ruthless and efficient New York’s top SS officer. It’s soon revealed that Smith already knows the truck is on it’s way and what’s its mission and the torture and death of the resistance leader is a gambit to make the resistance believe they got their intel from him and that they already know from other sources.
During the long haul, Joe searches his truck and discovers what the resistance wants to deliver: another reel of the same film that Juliana found. At Canyon City, Juliana is robbed of her possessions and money, save the reel which she had hidden in their coat. Joe finds her and helps her to buy lunch and they strike a fast friendship. Joe makes a call back to New York but it’s revealed that he’s in fact an agent of the SS responding directly to Smith and his mission is to infiltrate the resistance and kill the man responsible for The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
In San Francisco, Minister of Trade Tagomi meets in secret with a Nazi officer Wegener beyond both their country backs, in effect committing high treason. With Hitler’s health deteriorating, warhawks in the Nazi party lead by Reinhard Heydrich want to escalate the tensions between Germany and Japan into open war, and they plan to prevent it by delivering to the Japanese the plans on how to created an Atomic bomb, whose technology has so far eluded the later, in hope of bringing a power equilibrium to the two powers through fear of mutual destruction. But things are complicated as it became obvious that there’s Nazi secret agents operating in San Francisco determined to destabilize the situation.
Meanwhile in New York, Smith’s life takes a turn for the worst when his car is ambushed and he’s attacked by shooters. He manages to kill them all himself, but his driver is killed, his aide badly shot and he himself barely come out alive. It seems the resistance has grown bold in New York in retaliation to the death of the resistance leader, but as Smith looks further into the matter things do not make much sense and he soon suspects treason among his staff, and that the attempt on his life might be linked to higher political events outside his knowledge and control.
The plot thickens!
I have seen the series now and my opinion is that this is one of the best current shows on television. I’m pleasantly surprised not just because it’s good, but because it’s a good adaptation of a PKD work, something which has eluded most adaptations of his works, with few notable exceptions. But probably the most surprising thing of all is that this novel was even adapted to begin with. An attempt to turn this story to the screen is not new, in fact it has been going on for decades, which proves how hard it is. Not just for the story itself but the tone. PKD created a story in which is leaves not much room to turn it into an excuse for an action movie. While alternative world stories is nothing new to film and even television, this is the first time a whole story is set in one, instead of being a novelty episode in a time travel story. And the strange style of the original story also makes it hard to adapt.
So, what was the solution from the show runners? To create a pragmatic adaption that in many ways mirror what was done to Blade Runner: retain the spirit, themes and mood (and some plot points and moments) of the original but create its own narrative and characterizations.
Like Blade Runner before, the show is faithful to some elements, characterization and plot points, but it also deviates and does it’s own thing. It’s literally impossible to do a complete adaptation or even an extremely faithful adaptation of a PKD’s story – even A Scanner Darkly, the closest adaptation yet, still had to deviate quite considerably from the original in quite some instances. But too many of the stories he created are just too good not to attempt an adaptation. PKD’s imagination created amazing stories and amazing worlds that still resonate, some even more today than the time they were written. We can’t blame a creative from being inspired by PKD’s works and trying their hand at adapting to another medium, like film or television. And in this case, and as far the first season goes, they succeeded. And thankfully, a second season is in the works.
As I read the list of the creatives responsible for the show, I noticed in the list of writers and directors of the episodes names familiar from other television shows I have enjoyed a lot. They are top people of their trade working on television. So right from the beginning, this is a prestige show from Amazon Studios. If this is their way to lead an assault on televised fiction, they are succeeding admirably. It’s not just Netflix now competing with cable and network television now. What this also brings is more quality television for the viewers. I have said this before, and I say this with added conviction: this is the golden age of television. Television is effectively kicking cinema’s ass! And just to make the kicking hurt harder, television has done something which has eluded cinema for quite a while now, save a few exceptions: a very good quality PKD adaptation. Take that!
As for the acting, I have been mostly impressed by the works of Alexa Davalos as Juliana, Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa as Tagomi, Joel de la Fuete as Kido and Rufus Sewell as John Smith.
Davalos proves once and for all she is not just a pretty face and in essence she is the show’s main protagonist and she carries on very well.
Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa goes for a very subtle, quiet performance and the result is a very soulful character that is easy to sympathize despite him one of the occupants and part of machine that tyrannizes the world.
It’s hard to believe that Joel de la Fuente was also the goofy marine from Space: Above And Beyond, so completely different is his acting as the very sinister Kido.
And then there’s Rufus Sewell as John Smith, the ultra dedicated family man and patriotic Nazi head of the New York SS. Sewell is no stranger to playing villains, but this is the most complete, complex, thrilling villain he has played as yet, and he does such an admirable job he might just be stealing the show. His performance often reminds us of the old saying that Nazis for all their monstrosity were people, ordinary people. John Smith is one of the most chilling representations of that, and so much more scary for that.
So, in my view, this is another great new television show and a must watch if you ask me, not just for PKD’s fans and science fiction enthusiasts, but for anybody who wants to watch quality television.
And the last scene in the season – which is taken from the book (should be a surprise there) – will make people talk until next season airs.
As always, thank you for reading.
This is AsimovLives signing off. Have a better one.