Amazon’s new series, Man in the High Castle, based off of the Phillip K Dick novel of the same came out recently. While it has been overshadowed by Marvel’s Jessica Jones coming out on Netflix the same day, it has still gained some talk because of the premise. Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate history, one in which the Axis won WWII and partitioned the United States. The show has a number of problems but it’s still interesting enough to merit discussion. So let’s not waste any time and jump in.
When dealing with an adaption, the first question that comes to mind for many people is how does it compare to the source material? In this case, that’s a tricky question to answer. The original book is good, but it’s not suited for TV, at all. This is a book were not a lot happens and a lot of the key points don’t translate well to a series.* Instead we get a loose adaption, taking the setting and plot in broad strokes and filling in the rest of the world. Fidelity to the source material is a virtue, not the virtue, so the fact that this is a loose adaption is fine. However, this does mean that the show writers have to create a lot of material and they do a mixed job of it.
At the heart of the show’s problems are the characters. They’re not particularly deep or compelling or even archetypes. They’re echoes, incomplete sketches that you can’t get invested in. Some of them, like Tagomi and Julia, are reverberating with their book counterparts in ways that don’t really add up. Others, primarily Obergruppenfuhrer Smith, are original to the show and aren’t given enough time to tell their stories. So if the characters aren’t compelling, what make the show engaging? Setting and visuals.
Part of the appeal in any dystopia is seeing how bad the world is; an appeal that is only heightened with a victorious Axis. WWII occupies a space in our collective cultural landscape as a mythical fight between good and evil after all. Yet the show fails in conveying a sense of horror or oppression for the most part. While it’s nauseating to see swastikas plastered all over the place and “Heil Hitler” being a common salutation, the shock of that wears off pretty quickly. It’s the more developed moments such as the nonchalant dismissal of a hospital killing the disabled that stand out. By and large, the brutality and inhumanity of these regimes is only spoken of, not shown and it arrives at this point by two very different, but concurrent paths.
On one hand, the sort of horror that a fascist regime exerts is normative. A totalitarian state asphyxiates private life and demands complete obedience in all spheres. Horror just isn’t in the swastikas, it’s in the Gestapo, it’s in the arts, it’s in every day speech and hopes and fears. The characters by and large, are non-normative for a number of reasons. They largely operate outside normal boundaries, and they don’t function as a gateway to observe greater society with, they’re off doing their own thing. Or they’re underdeveloped.
On the other hand, it’s hard to actually notice any sort of difference that concentration camps would have because diversity in television is only now starting to be a thing. Images of lily-white, abled America are still the presumed default. This level of awareness is important in answering the question of why people seemed to have acquiesced to the Nazis so easily? It alludes to the bigotries that were common, how they were pushed and redefined until people had no qualms with concentration camps. The problem is that this only a faint allusion and we’re seeing the end result. The process would be far more terrifying. **
I’ve only been talking about the Nazi occupied East Coast so far and that’s because it’s far more interesting. The Japanese controlled Pacific States are supposed to stand out for things like kanji on signs and a racial hierarchy with the Japanese on top. Aside from some rather run of the mill police state narrative short-hands, there isn’t a lot here that isn’t just playing off of Yellow Peril tropes.
Dick’s novel, like many of his works, was about reality. The show, while having moments of clarity and horror that strikes close to home, are few and far between. It is an incomplete world with the boundaries clearly visible. There is a chance that these issues will be corrected in the second season, but I’m not hopeful. Next week I’ll be talking about Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Till next time.
*I think it’s doable to make the book into a miniseries, as there are different expectations there, but no one appears to be in the business of making those anymore.
**For this I would suggest reading Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America