By Trevor Busch
Although the works of highly-regarded American science-fiction author Philip K. Dick have never been a stranger to the big screen, it has been the more recent forays into small-screen adaptation that has captured the eye of this reviewer. But more about that later.
Perhaps the most well-known and successful film based on one of Dick’s works has been Ridley Scott’s 1982 opus Blade Runner, which was adapted from the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This has since spawned the recent sequel Blade Runner 2049. However, Dick’s novels have been adapted for films which many viewers might recognize but not all might know originally sprang from the pen of the celebrated author. These include 1990’s Total Recall, 2002’s Minority Report and Imposter, 2003’s Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly from 2006, 2007’s Next, 2010’s Radio Free Albemuth, and 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau, among others.
While the quality and content of these adaptations as well as their dedication to the intent of the original novels might be highly questionable depending on one’s perspective, Dick’s works have already left an indelible impression on the film community as well as the literary world. His works were almost always an exploration of a bizarre and sometimes macabre vision for the future, and Dick is still considered a giant in the field of science fiction who has influenced innumerable writers and directors down through the years.
Although most of Dick’s works can be firmly compartmentalized into the genre of science-fiction, one of his novels, 1962’s The Man in the High Castle, doesn’t entirely fit this description, but is more rooted in the world of what is today known as alternative history. In the early 1960s, this still-developing sub-genre had only a handful of examples, but it’s been suggested that at least one, author Ward Moore’s alternative history Bring the Jubilee(1953), in which the Confederate south wins the American Civil War, was an influence on Dick’s novel which depicts a 1962 America prostrate and defeated under joint occupation by the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire.
Exploring a world that might have been — a totalitarian-occupied America divided between Germany and Japan following defeat in WWII — The Man in the High Castle is fascinating in that it centers around a novel within the novel, a subversive document known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that describes history as we would know it, not the twisted vision that Dick presents us with. This is classic Dick, whose mastery of weird transpositions within his novels is almost legendary, and one of the key factors involved in the popularity of his writing.
Never adapted for the big screen, The Man in the High Castle has been recently adapted for the small screen through a popular streaming service, Amazon Prime. Created by Frank Spotnitz of The X-Files fame, this darkly-engrossing dystopian alternate history series debuted in January 2015 and quickly became Amazon’s most-watched series debut since their original series development program began. Although loosely based on Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, the series — which has an almost brooding film noir aura to its cinematography, reminiscent of films of that genre from the 1940s — once boasted legendary executive producer Ridley Scott, and includes Isa Dick Hackett, daughter of Philip K. Dick. A second season premiered in December 2016, with a third season planned to be released sometime in 2018.
Although television and film adaptations always change some things from a novel — too faithful an adaptation would be simply boring — The Man in the High Castle is still relatively close to the plot of Dick’s book. Germany and Japan have triumphed over America, and the series follows characters whose destinies intertwine after coming into contact with a series of propaganda films — The Grasshopper Lies Heavy — that show a vastly different history from that of their own. The producers expansion on this theme of individuals who possess the ability to interdimensionally shift between parallel universes — one our own, the other that of Dick’s nightmare-occupied America — is frankly provocative, updating the novel’s more ethereal explanations that would have pleased Dick but not so much a modern audience grasping for scientific straws.
Largely centered on the characters of Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) and Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) following them through a web of deceit and lies as Juliana tries desperately to determine the meaning behind the film she discovers which depicts a world that can’t possibly be real — our world, a world where the Allies won WWII. Her search for answers leads her to the Resistance, and Blake’s flirtations with the Nazis and the dark secrets of his past are central to much of the series’ narrative.
One of the key locations in Season 2 is a victorious Hitler’s realization of his grand vision, a palatial “Germania” complete with the Volkshalle, the great hall of brobdignagian proportions that Hitler had planned to be the centerpiece of a new Berlin — post victory, of course. Throughout The Man in the High Castle one of the main plots is the superpower Cold War that has developed between Germany and the Japanese Empire in the wake of the end of the war.
One of the more fascinating characters to emerge from this cauldron of cutthroat political maneuvering and treasonous plots is Blake’s father, Reichsminister Martin Heusmann (Sebastian Roche). Clearly a character based on historical Nazi henchman Albert Speer, who as an architect successfully oversaw the Third Reich’s war production and the expansion and maintenance of a vast slave labour force, it is interesting — and perhaps telling — that he is one of the few fictional characters represented in Berlin. Others, like Hitler himself, Reinhard Heydrich, and Heinrich Himmler appear before the cameras, but the Heusmann-cum-Speer character is a creation.
This is likely because Speer, who survived the war and was imprisoned for war crimes and later released, is still a controversial historical figure. Speer spent much of his incarceration attempting to obfuscate his war guilt through the publication of works like Inside the Third Reich (1970) where he insists he had little direct involvement with the perpetration of the Holocaust, a somewhat laughable suggestion considering his position in the Nazi government and a claim largely condemned by most serious modern historians. But the mythology around Speer persists, and he retains supporters of his image as an affable intellectual caught up in the horror of an evil regime, rather than part of that horror itself.
That’s probably why the character of Heusmann — who is eventually revealed to harbour dark genocidal impulses — was made a fictional character. Applying that characterization to Albert Speer would still be controversial in some circles, even today.
As part of an advertising campaign for the release of the first season — which in retrospect may have been attempting to create the very controversy it did — an entire New York City Subway car was covered with Nazi and Imperial Japanese imagery as seen in the show, including multiple American flags with the Nazi eagle emblem in place of the 50 stars and multiple flags of the fictional Pacific States. This caused a firestorm of protest in the lead up to the show’s release, and the offending images were eventually ordered removed. Considering the show’s subsequent success, it would seem to prove that in some instances any publicity is good publicity.
An absorbing descent into what might have been, featuring stunning cinematography, outstanding plot development, and talented acting, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is a tour de force of dark motivations and puzzling plot twists, all welded to a strange parallel universe where everything is not quite as it seems.