Who put the Man in the High Castle?

Originally published on Culture Shock.

It was the poster of the statue of liberty proudly wearing the Nazi swastika that did it, that drew me into Amazon’s series The Man in the High Castle. Based on a book by Philip K. Dick of the same name, the show takes place in an alternate history where the Axis powers won the war and split America between them. The driving conflict arises when films, created by the man in the high castle, depicting a world where the Allies have won the war, start to appear and inspire people.

photo credit: Amerikanische, chilenische, französische, portugiesische Hakenkreuze … Wie viele davon mag es da draußen noch geben? via photopin (license)
photo credit: Amerikanische, chilenische, französische, portugiesische Hakenkreuze … Wie viele davon mag es da draußen noch geben? via photopin (license)

The show then follows a multi-layered espionage and political drama with the American resistance, Japanese, and German forces all secretly fighting each other for power and control. The lines get muddled a bit, but things are fairly straight forward. Everything is complete with righteous missions and dire consequences. Nazis are bad. Americans are good. Japanese are in the middle.

Naturally, I was then interested in the series’ source material. On the surface, the novel is fairly similar. Yes, the man in the high castle wrote a book instead of crafting films, but many of the same characters populate the same Axis controlled world.

However that’s where the similarities end. In the novel, there is a political plotline but no resistance fighters, no double-agents, and little intrigue. Instead of a relatively black and white spy drama, the book is a complex picture of a varied cast and their world. No one is 100% bad or 100% good. They all have their racial biases, their morally-grey political beliefs. In reality, these are just people looking for purpose and meaning in a chaotic, ever-changing world where drastically new technologies such as television and interplanetary rockets seem to come out every few months and atrocities such as large-scale African slaughter are being committed every day. Everyone, no matter what opinions they hold or what side they rooting for, is just lost (some more than others) and desperate to understand their world and their place in it.

Looking for answers, characters often gravitate to the man in the high castle’s book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. But the world depicted in that novel, the world in which the Allies won the war, is equally grey and troubling. It’s not quite our world, instead of Japan and Germany dividing the world, it is Britain and America. In fact, things are not all that different. As hard as the characters try, there are very few answers there.

photo credit: Nazi Exhibit at the German Historical Museum via photopin (license)
photo credit: Nazi Exhibit at the German Historical Museum via photopin (license)

It’s these very existential themes that the television show fails to capture. By focusing on the political drama, adding clear goals and consequences, dividing up good and evil, the series expands on Philip K. Dick’s world, yes, but it glosses over some of the deeper and much more human aspects of the concept.

On the other hand, I understand why the people at Amazon did this. It’s easier to consume a spy drama than a conceptual alternate history. For all the human beauty and depth of Phillip K. Dick’s novel, it is a very dense read. It’s the kind of novel that must be read, pondered, reread, and pondered some more; the kind meant to inspire philosophical discussions about the nature of human existence. Not exactly something for the casual consumer.

At the same time, it is the profundity in the novel that makes the characters and the concept something truly memorable and satisfying on both an emotional and intellectual level that the television show barely even touches. In that sense, all Amazon did was create just another Nazi drama.

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