Something Terrible or Divine

Great novels — and Philip K. Dick’s unsettling 1962 alternate history The Man in the High Castle is certainly a great novel — tend to have in common the fact that much of their greatness is in their ability to communicate the internal.  From their omnipotent viewpoint, they can use language to its utmost capacity, delivering to the reader an immediately comprehensible vision of psychological turmoil, the stream of consciousness, and the tumult of the soul.  This is often part of what makes them great, but it is also often what makes them unfilmable.

Amazon Instant Video has released the first episode of a television series based on The Man in the High Castle, in advance of the entire first seasons’s arrival later this year.  A film adaptation of the novel was long rumored but never materialized, and a proposed BBC mini-series fell apart in the negotiation process; Ridley Scott, a director once possessed of genius but in recent decades fallen into rote and predictable patterns, picked up the rights, and it was developed into a series (ongoing? surely not, though stranger things have happened) by X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz.  It’s certainly unfair to judge the series based on only one episode, especially one as uneven as this; the pilot has some astonishing strengths and some glaring weaknesses.  It’s far too soon to judge the success or failure of the show. But it’s perhaps not too soon to see what it draws from the novel, and what it leaves behind.

The Man in the High Castle‘s plot involves a cast of diverse characters in a postwar America following defeat at the hands of the Axis.  Germany controls most of the U.S., placing under the aegis of the greater German reich and carrying about the ugly business of exterminating Jews and blacks; Japan incorporates the west coast into their Co-Prosperity Sphere, administering a less brutal but equally stifling social control over the capitol of San Francisco; and a Vichy-style buffer zone between the two exists in the Rocky Mountain states.  A political struggle is taking place in the Reich, and its endgame — as discovered by the character Nobosuke Tagomi, a minor trade functionary — will almost certainly be an attack on the empire of Japan by their quondam ally.  Meanwhile, a mysterious book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy circulates around, and purports to show a world in which the Allies won the war.

But it is about those things in the same way Crime and Punishment is about a tenant murdering his landlady:  the specifics are merely a framework in which Dick examines the depths of the human heart.  Some of the themes are quite familiar territory for him:  perception and reality, the idea of multiple worlds, the illusory nature of what we usually think of as permanent, and the way we craft identities and show faces that vary from moment to moment and person to person.  Others are new terrain, and richly explored by the book’s ceaseless probing:  the nature of hate and prejudice, the urge towards violence and how we alternately suppress and indulge it, the wisdom and folly of hope, and most of all, the way people survive under oppression.

Most of those ideas are difficult to show on screen, though, particularly in a serial drama.  Keeping viewers tuned in week after week, even in the era of ‘quality’ television, apparently requires ramping up the more, er, traditional elements, which accounts for the fact that the television version of The Man in the High Castle contains not one, but two shootouts — neither of which are present in the book, and each of which features a character invented for the show.  No matter what they say, American television audiences are allergic to ambiguity, and the novel is absolutely swathed in ambiguous events, characters, and attitude from beginning to end.  To avoid people stomping around in frustration at the lack of easy answers, we’re probably going to get a lot of this sort of thing, as well as stock villains, obvious motivations (the main character, Juliana — a far more morally compromised character in the book — gets a murdered sister to spur her to action), and dull plot movealongs before this is all over.

Worse still (and here, it becomes particularly difficult to make decisions given that we have no real idea where the show is headed from this point), it’s very possible that the endgame of The Man in the High Castle will be some kind of definitively resolved solution, a trite sci-fi contrivance by which the characters travel through time or space to ‘fix’ the situation, to return to the ‘real’ history of the war.  That may not happen, but if it does, it would be a huge tragedy, because it would be death to the subtly constructed sense of unreality and dread that Dick built in the novel.  The whole point of the book was that there was no way out, no solution, and perhaps even no difference; even the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is different, and in many ways worse, than our own.  The tormented minds of the characters, we are led to understand, might be no less tormented if they lived in a world where men were free; they might only be tormented in a different way.

Time will tell if things go in that direction, but if they do, it’ll be a waste, because The Man in the High Castle has a lot going for it.  There’s a solid lineup of directors slotted to film the show, and it’s got a beautiful visual style to it:  lots of graphic flair, filmed through a saturated ’60s color filter, and stark design.  There’s a good mix of the flashy and the run-down, and the opening credits are extraordinarily well-done.  Shots of the urban centers of occupied New York and San Francisco are memorable and excellently conceived, and most of the cast is solid.  In particular, Alexa Davalos in the lead role of Juliana is all tension and determination, letting dozens of conflicting emotions cross her face as she negotiates the occupation of her home by a people she respects but doesn’t understand.  Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is all heaviness and wounded dignity as Mr. Tagomi.  And the script shows at least some determination to keep things close to the vest; it’s when it becomes too obvious that worry sets in.  The Man in the High Castle is a book about the crushed soul of humanity, striving to become something divine rather than something terrible; the show of the same name seems to be undergoing the same struggle.

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