Revisiting the Classics: The Man in the High Castle
With The Man in the High Castle premiering its third season on Amazon, I thought I’d seek out the book on which the series was based. I didn’t want to see the TV version before re-reading the book, because I wanted to see how well the original material was adapted.
It took me a while, but I finally found on my shelves the paperback book I’d read when I was in my twenties. The book was a 1962 Popular Library edition with the front cover missing— it hadn’t been stripped, I’m pretty sure, just torn or worn off somewhere in its adventurous past, probably before I acquired it. I’m pleased to report that the ad in the back for seven spine-tingling novels by Mignon G. Eberhart remains intact.
I’m guessing the book is maybe 75,000 words, which is a little long for a genre novel of the period.
When I picked up the book again, enough time had passed that I didn’t remember much about the actual story: I remembered the Japanese preoccupation with American prewar popular art, I remembered the I Ching, and I remembered an ending which both fell a little flat and which was very unusual for a genre work of the time.
(By which I mean, if you encounter a typical SF novel in which the U.S. is occupied by a foreign power, or by aliens, by the end of the book the invaders are going to be defeated, or at least thwarted. [See Sixth Column] At the end of High Castle, the characters are arguably in a far worse situation than they were at the beginning, the author Hawthorne Abendsen [the object of Julianna’s quest] is clearly going to be assassinated, and our only consolation is the possibility that the world in which they live is somehow metaphysically less real than the world in which we, the readers, live. You didn’t see a lot of that in SF in 1962, no sir!)
I hadn’t got very far into the re-reading before I came to the conclusion that there was no damn fucking way this could ever be made into a TV series. The narration is too internal, there is very little dramatizable action, and you can’t make the manipulation of 49 yarrow stalks followed by the reading of an opaque text dramatically interesting. What Amazon has done, I’m sure, is create a situation more or less parallel to that of the novel, and some characters with the same names and some of the same problems, and then done what TV people do to make that interesting. The series might well be successful on its own terms, it just won’t be The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. (Those of you who have seen the series can tell me if I’m right. I’m particularly interested to learn whether they made successful drama out of I Ching readings.)
Another reason the book would make poor TV is that there aren’t exactly any good guys. Childan, the art dealer, could be a sympathetic character except that he’s pretty much a Nazi, convinced that an Axis victory, complete with its genocide against Jews and blacks, was necessary to save the world from communism. Frank Frink, the Jewish artisan, succeeds in maintaining his secret identity while starting a small business and creating authentic American art, which in the world of the novel is important but would be difficult to turn into exciting TV. Julianna, Frank’s ex, is a traumatized rape victim who, during the course of a kind of nervous breakdown, does in fact succeed in killing an Axis assassin and resolving the Abendsen plot, and she could be a terrific character if played by a consummate actress, but that would be hard because all her story, her motivations, etc., are internal. Her actions would be completely arbitrary and senseless unless you could get into her head, and you can’t do that in TV. Likewise Joe’s lengthy monologue on the difference between Italian fascism and Nazism, which could take up about twenty minutes of TV time to the utter bewilderment of the audience.
The hero of the story, assuming there is one, is the Japanese consul Tagomi, whose internal spiritual journey is by far the most interesting character arc in the book, and who in the end wanders out of his own universe into ours, the readers’, to provide objective evidence that we, the readers, are real. (Try dramatizing that!)
Dick’s world is very well realized, and features no less than two well thought-out alternative worlds featuring characters (Rex Tugwell?) that popular history tends to leave out. It’s pretty chewy, though his Axis world also succeeds in being even more horrific than the actual Third Reich. The struggles of characters like Tagomi and Childan, who have to negotiate the delicate social boundaries between Japanese and American culture, are extremely well rendered. (I don’t know whether a native Japanese would find Dick’s version of Japanese culture convincing, but it works in the novel.)
The book was far richer than I remembered, in part because the I Ching told the author to avoid anything obvious or expected in composing the story. Nobody joins the underground, nobody saves the world, and any victories are temporary, and largely spiritual.
I can’t help but feel that the TV series is going to let me down. Be sure to let me know.