Revisiting the Classics: The Man in the High Castle

by wjw on January 12, 2017

The_Man_in_the_High_CastleWith 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.

bkd69 January 12, 2017 at 2:55 am

Well if THAT’S going to be your standard, then no, no Phil Dick story can ever be adapted to the screen. But on a scale of, I dunno, say, Paycheck, to Blade Runner, I think the series (on Amazon, actually, in case you do go looking for it) bumps nicely right underneath Scanner Darkly.

(caveat: I’ve not yet read the book, though it’s sitting on my Nook screen, right between Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind)

It’s a modern Prestige Series(tm), which means the production and cast are all first rate, so the only real variable is the writing. Also welcome is the modern tradition of using actual furrin languages with subtitles. I also can’t help but wonder if neo nazis keep rewinding and reviewing the wide shots of Berlin and the American Reich as if it were a porno.

Without the internal dialogue and motivations, there’s a greater emphasis on Adventures with the Resistance and chasing of film canisters than I suspect there is in the book, based on your description.

They do a good job of pacing out revealing details of life in the American Reich and Nippon occupied states, as opposed the first season of Mad Men, by comparison, which took every opportunity to lampshade ‘Hey! It’s the sixties!’

Tagomi-san is still a featured player, and he does make it to Earth Prime. They do show him casting stalks, though it’s more set dressing than anything else.

In short, it’s hardly the worst PKD adaptation, and worth watching in it’s own right.

wjw January 12, 2017 at 3:03 am

No film canisters in the book. People chase the author of an alternative-history novel. Ha!

Also, no resistance. Lots of bad guys, no good guys per se. Sounds like the HBO version is pretty much what I thought it’d be.

Gary Gibson January 12, 2017 at 3:22 am

It’s Amazon, rather than HBO. But it’s in the ballpark.

I also re-read the book after many years, but after seeing the first season of the show (the second is out but I haven’t seen it yet). It is, indeed, unfilmable. It’s also very, very weird, at least by modern standards. Rather than a book, there’s indeed film, acting tangible proof of an alternative reality.

Tagomi is probably closest to his original character in the book, and in many ways his part of the narrative hews closest to the book, up to and including finding himself, briefly, in ‘our’ world.

It’s not The Man in the High Castle, as Dick might have imagined it, but similarly Bladerunner is a pretty good film and touches on all the bases of the book that inspired it without actually resembling Do Androids Dream very much at all. The TV show is strongly oriented towards skullduggery and dark manoeuvrings, but there’s still enough of a question about what constitutes the ‘true’ reality to keep things interesting, and they’ve introduced some new characters to build the whole story out over a number of seasons. I like it. The actress who plays Julianna is, frankly, excellent.

Iain January 12, 2017 at 5:50 am

I think the series is good, though the series is not the book. It doesn’t really attempt to replicate the plot of the book in any detailed way, though there are elements which are similar (if heavily rearranged). It does surprisingly well at making you support most of the viewpoint characters, despite their objectively awful (and conflicting) actions and beliefs. I think both seasons are worth watching as sci-fi/alternate history, but perhaps not if expecting a close recreation of the book on screen.

Paul Weimer January 12, 2017 at 6:14 am

I agree. I like the series, but the series is not the book. It couldn’t be, anyway.

Dave L January 12, 2017 at 6:33 am

I read the book (finally) after watching the first season. The book is okay. Personally I prefer the TV series as it evokes much more complex emotions to me. I thought Amazon made a decent fist of a tricky adaptation (but then I like David Lynch’s Dune so what do I know). I’m looking forward to season three.

Phil Koop January 12, 2017 at 8:18 am

It’s impossible to render any Dick story as written in a TV series, and it would take a Tarkovsky to succeed even in movie format. Dick adaptations work precisely because they’re “idea” stories with weak narrative lines, leaving plenty of scope for invention and providing mainly a theme and some atmosphere.

But this is generally true of adaptations: great novels (Anna Karenina) don’t necessarily make good movies even when executed by fine directors and actors. So-so books can make for great movies (The Shooting Party.) And when a work is great in both versions (The English Patient), that is usually because the movie has “captured the essence” of the book, doing considerable violence to the original story in the process.

Privateiron January 12, 2017 at 9:38 am

I loved the book, though I have not read it in more than 20 years.

I thought the series was pretty good, particularly the second season and it probably helped that I no longer had enough active memory of the novel to make endless comparisons on the deviations.

They are different and they both work, for me.

GRRM January 12, 2017 at 8:26 pm

There’s very little Dick in the TV show, and even less iChing.

Very well done, looks great, well acted, but it’s mostly Adventures in Axis World.

And HBO had nothing to do with it.

gottacook January 12, 2017 at 11:51 pm

An earlier commenter notes, concerning the Amazon series’ version of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy: “Rather than a book, there’s indeed film, acting tangible proof of an alternative reality.” Tangible proof? In a slightly later Dick novel, The Penultimate Truth, faked documentary films about international conflicts are a key plot element. Seems to me that the writers of the Amazon series have been borrowing from other Dick novels to expand their story.

wjw January 13, 2017 at 12:45 am

Phil, that’s a good observation re the difficulty of making good books into good movies.

I’ve now viewed Episode One, and found it a collection of hoary cliches. That doesn’t matter so much with pilot episodes, because networks tend to insist that pilot episodes consist largely of hoary cliches, so that the hypothetical (and dimwitted) audience can understand them. Often series tend to find their voice in later episodes.

There were characters that didn’t appear in the novel— apparently the producers decided they needed a continuing villain, so Obergruppenfuhrer Smith appeared to replace the Faceless Nazi Hordes.

And there was one moment of total unreality, where Juliana sees her sister gunned down in the street by the Kempeitai, and instead of doing what a normal human being might do— try to help, call her parents, weep, hide under the bed— she decides to watch a movie. I didn’t believe that for an instant.

But what the episode totally lacked, in my view, was Philip K Dick. Nothing existed to tell me that we were in a Phil Dick scenario.

Now you can do Adventures in Axis World, and it’s fine with me if you do, but why call it Man in the High Castle when it’s not? It’s not like Hollywood will automatically throw money at everyone who does a Dick adaptation, otherwise everyone would be doing one. You can just say, “I want to do Adventures in Axis World,” and they’ll say, “The Nazis won? What a brilliant, original idea! Nobody’s ever done that before! You’re a genius!”

Plus I predict they’ll eventually get into trouble with Dick’s ending, because he really didn’t provide one– he just did a kind of sidestep into I Ching Land. If Abendsen isn’t just a writer making stuff up with the aid of his 49 yarrow stalks, but is actually importing WWII documentaries from Earth Prime (highly original name, that), that means he’s got a conduit to our 1962, and we know the Nazis didn’t invade us in ’62, and neither did we invade them, so that’s a major plot element that can’t actually be resolved.

Or am I wrong?

Todd Huff January 13, 2017 at 1:11 am

Did you perhaps find the pilot episode full of hoary cliches because the novel was so popular that those ideas have become hoary cliches?

I’ve seen both seasons now and I think Season Two is better by far, although Frank still suffers from “I’m going to do something stupid now because I’m overemotional” disease. The finale was full of suspense and the ending was a surprise. Tagomi’s journey is even more fascinating as well.

bkd69 January 13, 2017 at 1:29 am

It’s not just documentaries from Earth Prime (which is not a term used in the series…I just used it in my comment because absolutely everybody here will know what it means). There’s apparently several different timelines and sequences that are documented in the films, and that’s one of the maguffins, what these films are and where they’re coming from, and the more immediate maguffin is that most of the films show San Francisco getting nuked, usually by the Nazis, so, they’re trying to stop that.

As far as Earth Prime goes, the only thing we’re given for that is Tagomi-san’s visions when he meditates himself into visiting/hallucinating it, and the films, which show just one of many different possible timelines.

So far, they haven’t nailed anything down hard and fast yet.

wjw January 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Todd>> no, none of the hoary cliches were in the novel. They were all TV-type hoary cliches intended to establish heroes and villains, establish character, and do world building.

Bkd69 January 14, 2017 at 11:36 pm

Here’s something related that may be of some amusement;

Jim Janney January 16, 2017 at 6:13 pm

I think We Can Remember It For You Wholesale done straight would have made a great Twilight Zone episode, but we got Total Recall instead.

wjw January 18, 2017 at 12:41 am

Bkd, is Total Recall really the best PKD adaptation? Oh, dear.

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