The Man in the High Castle: A complex dystopian television series

The Man in the High Castle TV series AmazonThe Man in the High Castle: A complex dystopian television series

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWho would have thought that Philip K. Dick’s 1962 Hugo Winner about the Axis powers winning WWII would be brought to film, and not just as a single movie, but as a big-budget multi-season drama series from Amazon and produced by Ridley Scott. Stranger than fiction, as they say.

I always have two questions for film adaptations: 1) How closely does it follow the book; 2) How good is it as a stand-alone work? In this case, it’s almost inevitable that a 10-episode Season 1 is going to stray drastically from a 240-page PKD book. Especially with Season 2 in the works, you can safely assume that there is no resolution at the end of Season 1. So I’ll restrict my review to what’s available.

The Man in the High Castle is a very well-produced, finely-detailed dystopian story that gives us a large cast of complex characters living in a cruel alternate history in which the Germans and Japanese have carved up the United States. There are thousands of incredible details in every scene, every frame, that show how America has been conquered and humiliated by the victors (the tiny swastikas on the buttons of uniforms, for example). The Germans rule the East Coast and all the US authorities greet each with “Heil Hitler” followed by a hearty American handshake. The main character there is tough German officer Obergruppenführer John Smith, with a wonderful suburban house and model family, including his chipper Hitler Youth son. He is tasked with tracking down some mysterious film reels that both Hitler and the Resistance are desperate to get ahold of.

On the West Coast, the Japanese have transformed San Francisco into a Japanese outpost, and whites are second-class citizens that have to yield at airports, on buses, buildings, etc. to the Japanese conquerors. The Japanese signage is impeccable, with accurate kanji characters that actually mean what they are supposed to say. It’s really refreshing to hear accurate Japanese dialogue that would pass with a bilingual audience, which is extremely rare for a Hollywood production. There are certainly a few ringers whose accents are wrong, but they are the exception. The German dialogue sounds pretty legit too, though I’m no expert.

The San Francisco setting features a large number of memorable characters:

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Juliana Crain, a woman who gets involved in the Resistance against the occupiers; Trade Minister Tagomi, who has a complex relationship with a German double-agent but remains loyal to Japan; Joe Blake, a young man who is trying to infiltrate the Resistance as a spy for the Germans; Frank Frink, an artisan who produces fake antique memorabilia for the Japanese; Inspector Kido, whose job is to track down the attempted assassin of the Crown Prince; and Rudolph Wegener, a high-ranking Nazi posing as a Swiss businessman as he conducts clandestine operations in San Francisco.

There are also several episodes set in Canon City, Colorado, in the Neutral States not controlled by the Germans or Japanese. It’s here that Juliana Crain and Joe Blake end up, as they try to connect with the Resistance. It’s a significant locale, since there is a mysterious figure named The Man in the High Castle supposedly hiding nearby, an important member of the Resistance, who is also keenly interested in some underground film reels under the label The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

There are a number of plot-lines intersecting throughout the series, but most of them center on the struggle to secure the underground film reels between the Germans, driven by Hitler, and the Resistance, who want to get them into the hands of the Man in the High Castle; the various machinations between the German and Japanese characters, who maintain an uneasy peace as the victors —however, the Germans have the upper hand thanks to nuclear weapons, and some high-ranking Germans are pushing to engage Japan in open war; and the clandestine operations of Rudolph Wegener in San Francisco, which seems related to the attempted assassination of the Japanese Crown Prince, and is somehow connected with Trade Minister Tagomi.

The biggest mystery, and one that is not revealed in Season 1, is the nature of the film reels. Who made them, and why do so many powerful people want them so badly, to the point that they are willing to sacrifice lives to get them? We are shown some very subversive images, but I won’t say what. I think a lot of the series’ believability depends on whether you think that some grainy underground films should be so damn important. In the book, it was not film, but rather a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Either way, without this element, you might not even recognize the reality-bending trademark of PKD’s works.

In the end, the storyline of the drama series is different enough from the book that I consider them separate works. The world-building of this drama is very immersive, the visual details are incredible, and the characters are (mostly) interesting enough to make you want more. It really takes on its own identity, and while book purists might be unsatisfied, it works very well as a complex dystopian tale.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. The fact that the language is accurate is a real marker of quality for me; I’m pretty impressed, even though I haven’t seen it yet.

    Canon City is the stomping ground of the Resistance! My dad was born there. He’d be so proud. In the show, does it still have a supermax prison nearby?

    • Marion, I wasn’t even sure that Canon City was a real city or just part of the alternate reality. There is a fairly over-the-top bounty hunter named “The Marshal” who features prominently there, but I won’t spoil anything. And no, no supermax prison to speak of, but perhaps in Season 2?

      • :) I think the supermax prison was built after Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle, so I would be very surprised if it showed up.

  2. I had been wondering about the faithfulness of the kanji — it would be so easy to throw some characters together and pretend that they’re accurate. Thanks for mentioning it, Stuart!

  3. Yes, I was checking both the spoken dialogue and all the kanji signage in San Francisco, and was very pleased to see that they were quite accurate, down to the 皇太子殿下 (Crown Prince) carefully lettered on a white envelope, and throughout the city, including company names, street signs, everything.

    I still remember laughing hysterically at the god-awful mess the HEROES TV series made of it’s supposedly Japanese characters and how they jerry-rigged the NY subway (I think) and tried to pass it off as Tokyo, with all these banners hanging from the ceiling that would hit everyone in the face. And the Japanese character Hiro Nakamura who always says “Yatta” has a terrible accent, but not nearly as bad as his sidekick who is actually Korean.

    So yes, big props to the producers of this series for taking time to get things right!

  4. Just watched the first two episodes. Wonderful so far! Glad to know your thoughts about the authenticity, Stuart.

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