Friday, January 30, 2015

The Man in the High Castle (2015)

(Requested by reader Mon-Sewer Paul Regret.)

USA, 60 minutes, TV pilot

The single most interesting point for me of Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle is the premise—in brief, an alternate history in which the Axis powers defeated the Allies in World War II, resulting in a world where North America has been divided into spheres of influence the way Eurasia was divided in our own, with Germany and Japan subsequently conducting their own versions of a Cold War. Early indications from the pilot of a new television miniseries (produced by Amazon) based on one of Dick's signature achievements show that vision preserved well, with deft use of iconography to get the point across. Unlike Dick, however, the latter-day TV adaptors already seem prone to indulging an all too familiar partiality for the delicious, delicious evils of Nazism. Thus, while Dick's novel never strayed over into scenes of German America (occupying the East Coast to approximately the Rocky Mountains, which serve as a buffering "neutral zone" between German and Japanese America), the television series actually opens there, and lovingly observes typical cool television versions of Nazi atrocities. Oh, they are bad—so bad. I have complaints about Dick's narrative myself, about the general obscurity and impulse to include what would become his trademark preoccupations (alternate time streams and parallel realities accessed via drugs and/or mental illness). None of that works for me as well as the singular premise, which in the early '60s (and since) offered a nigh perfect way in to understanding the hideous logic and intractable insanity of the Cold War. It looks so chillingly possible, particularly in those reconstructed maps of North America, very nicely done in the TV pilot. But how to make a story work in the context just might be a universal problem. The series appears to be departing from Dick's own attempts, but I'm dubious they have struck on anything better (or, it must be said, worse). At first I was unimpressed with the true believers in the TV pilot, characters so vividly moved and fascinated by the idea of an alternate history in which the Allies won the war. But then I remembered my own wistful fantasies about undoing Republican control in the US for the past several decades. I would probably be similarly moved and fascinated by film footage of Ronald Reagan not winning those '80s elections. The blankness in Dick's writing, combined with his unusual and evocative ideas, somehow makes it easy for filmmakers and script writers to put their own stamp on his material—think about Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall. I suspect that's what I see happening in this new television series. Already, with a Big Reveal at the end of the pilot, it is trading in the usual tricks, the beats and rhythms, of present-day television entertainment, with multiple story arcs established and moved along down their early pathways, climaxes every 12 minutes, touching sentimental (and thus easily manipulated) notes of family and patriotism, "freedom and liberty," and with moments of gorgeous human kindness, plus a swelling pop soundtrack ("Edelweiss" as theme song is pretty nifty here). I'm not saying this is bad—one thing about television series these days is they really have unlocked the keys into capturing and controlling their nichy audiences. They can make you cry on command and send you to rousing heights. But it's just not nearly as original as Dick. I would expect more of what we like from television in this version of The Man in the High Castle, but not much more. Certainly, from the pilot, I don't feel compelled to see every episode as soon as I possibly can, but then I don't feel compelled in that direction for Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, or The Wire either, all of which I have been plodding along through for years.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I'm re-reading the novel after seeing the pilot, and am reminded of many of the things you mention. I know when watching the show, I kept thinking "Why so much about the Nazi-occupied East?" Like you, I find the premise to be the best thing about the book, and it's something that is relatively easy to transfer to another medium. Since my favorite part of PKD is those "trademark preoccupations", I've always found High Castle to easier to admire than to love. Keep in mind that the presence of the show on Amazon (this holds for any non-commercial network) means they don't need the every-12-minute climaxes, but you're exactly right, the format definitely wants a cliffhanger at the end of an episode. There haven't been any announcements, but I suspect Amazon will OK a full season of this.