Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews "The Man in the High Castle," a ten-part series from Amazon based on Philip K. Dick's novel of the same name. Marc edited Dick in the later 1960s when he worked for Doubleday.
Back in 1961, Putnam decided to roll his career-future dice publishing an alternate-history book as a major mainstream novel, complete with a huge, costly ad in the New York Times Book Review. That book was Philip K. Dick’s what-if-the-Axis-won masterpiece “The Man in the High Castle,” in which Japan and Germany partition the U.S.
As commercial fare, the book flopped, with under 1,700 copies sold. Dick went back to writing rank-and-file science fiction almost to his death in 1982.
Now, almost unimaginably, “High Castle” has come to television in a generally well-received 10-part Amazon series. What was once a lean, spare novel of 280 pages with only three main characters, set almost entirely in a Japanese-occupied San Francisco, has become a poly-protagonist epic sprawling all over two continents.
Yet, also almost unimaginably, the spirit of the book, Dick’s unique gift for portraying all of his characters, big and small, as human beings, is somehow retained throughout. Along with good direction, at least adequate acting, and Frank Spotnitz’ exceptional production values, this makes the entire opus riveting.
"There are no heroes in Dick's books", Ursula Le Guin once wrote, "but there are heroics…what counts is the honesty, constancy, kindness and patience of ordinary people."
Even the Nazis occupying the Eastern US and the fascistic Japanese in the west have their moments of humanity. Perhaps the most excessive of these is an elderly, mortally-ill Hitler, seeking to avoid another war—this time, with his former ally, Japan. Only one character is pure evil: a bounty hunter from the Colorado Rockies who seems to have escaped from a Quentin Tarantino movie. He doesn’t belong here and appropriately disappears from the final episodes.
Of course, he was not in the original book. But unlike other Dick-based films like "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," and "Minority Report," which abandoned Dick’s original narrative, many of the strongest characters and moments in the novel "High Castle" reappear in the series. Such as the disastrous, almost Tolstoyan, dinner party with a Japanese power couple attended by protagonist Frank Frink’s (Rupert Evans) curio-dealing employer. Or the super-powerful, totally unforeseen street scene (about which I will tell you nothing) with which the ten-part season series ends.
Juliana (Alexa Davalos) -- Frink’s estranged wife in the book, his girlfriend in the series -- was that rarest of Dick characters, a strong, positive, effective woman. She is even more so on the screen. The substitution of various film reels for the original fictional novel McGuffin generally works, albeit there seem to be a few too many abandoned operating 16 mm projectors left around.
And there are some clunkers. Like when the Nazi elevated monorail from which-side-is-he-on Nazi/underground operative Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) descends bears the label “U-Bahn.” Whoops, that’s a subway folks. The elevated is an “S-Bahn.” Or why is “Mack the Knife,” a song by a Communist (Bertolt Brecht) and a Jew (Kurt Weill), being sung at an otherwise terrifyingly well-imagined Aryan Victory Day picnic in occupied Long Island?
None of this is enough to spoil the fun of this great series, which despite its violent passages amounts to a think piece about life under despotism, the validity of hope in a world of hopelessness, and the fine gradations of humanity even among the worst people you can imagine.