The Man in the High Castle

When I joined Amazon Prime a couple of years ago, I was mostly in it for the fast free shipping, but I did plan to take advantage of the access to videos and music. Good plan, but not much came of it. Then Amazon announced it was producing an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic SF parable The Man in the High Castle, and my interest in the video side jumped.

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I’ve always been a fan of alternate history tales, and I’d read High Castle back around 1980, so I downloaded a copy to my Kindle (later discovering that I still had an old Science Fiction Book Club edition on a high shelf) and read it last November. That convinced me that an adaptation was going to take a lot of work.

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The Man in the High Castle

New cover, based on adaptation, sure to confuse unsuspecting readers

The Man in the High Castle is a very cerebral novel, based on the premise that the U.S. and its allies lost World War Two. The eastern half of the country is now part of the Greater German Reich, the west coast is ruled by the Japanese, and a strip just east of the Rockies is a Neutral Zone. In the novel, an array of (not particularly sympathetic) characters spends an inordinate amount of time consulting the I Ching and discussing the probable political fall out from Hitler’s eventual death. Interesting enough to read, but not the stuff of great cinematic drama. The action, such as there was, took place in the Pacific States (where Dick was interested in the problems of Americans trying to adapt to the very different basics of Japanese culture) and the Neutral Zone (where the Man in the High Castle, who appears only in the last few pages, lived).

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Turning this relatively short philosophical novel into a ten-hour (and more—the third ten-episode season is currently in production) was clearly going to take a great deal of expansion. When I finally begin watching the series (on my new WiFi powered tablet), I quickly began piling up “I don’t remember that” moments.

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For good reason. Much has been added, much has been changed, and much has been improved. The basic premise remains, of course—the United States is no more. It is 1962, and the Reich rules the East, the Japanese the West, and the Neutral Zone is essentially lawless. The main characters, Juliana, Frank, and Joe, are younger, more interesting, and far more active, and relationships between them have changed. Major characters have been added, as have important motivations.

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One change at the core of the adaptation involves the McGuffin of the story, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In Dick’s novel, this was an alternate history novel, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, the Man in the High Castle, banned in the Reich, available in an under the table sort of way in the Pacific States, and sold openly in the Neutral Zone. In the adaptation, it is a collection of newsreel films showing alternate time lines, sought by both the Reich and the Japanese, extremely dangerous for the Resistance members attempting to smuggle the reels to Abendsen, who may be responsible for them or merely collecting them. The films provide danger, conflict, and mystery to propel the action.

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Major new characters include Chief Inspector Kido of the Japanese Kempeitai in San Francisco, terrifying and ruthless in pursuit of his duties and the newsreels, and Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, the American head of the SS in New York, a man with a home in the suburbs (where neighbors wave at one another with a cheerful “Sieg Heil”), a family he loves dearly, and the ability to push a disloyal subordinate off a building ledge without wrinkling his uniform.

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I could go on and on. As a lover of alternate histories, I’m totally engrossed by the story, the characters, and the production values. As a reader and writer I’m fascinated by the changes and expansions made to bring the novel to the screen. And I’ve lost so much sleep staying up late watching it that I’ve promised myself that I’ll wait until August (after I return from the RWA conference in Orlando next week) before I start on Season Two. Then, alas, I’ll have to wait with everyone else for the release of Season Three, probably late this year.

Nazi Times Square