Dec 24 2020

From Page To Screen: The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick

I finally finished all four seasons of the brilliant Amazon adaptation of the sci-fi classic, and was struck both by the similarities, which were neutral to bad, as well as by the differences, which were mostly wise choices on the part of the series’ creative team, imho.

There must, ofc, be plentiful differences in order to expand Philip K Dick’s somewhat slender tale to encompass four gripping seasons. The biggest change is the enhancement of the roles of John and Helen Smith, an all-American couple who pledged allegiance to the Nazis when the Axis powers won World War II, and eventually rise to become the most powerful couple in America. John is played by Rufus Sewell at his conflicted and deadly best, as he denies more and more of his humanity in order to survive and thrive in the American Reich. His best scenes come when you think he’s cornered, especially when reporting to his superiors in Germany. His absolute ruthlessness against even more evil people than himself is a joy to watch, even as you know he’s still a very bad person.

Chelah Horsdal’s Helen self-medicates and self-deludes in order to live up to her role of the perfect Nazi matron, until their eldest child, Thomas, makes a choice that lays bare the utter horror of the system they’ve spent so long propping up. As Helen tearfully admits to her daughter in the season ender, she only started caring when the Reich began to do to her what they’ve done to everyone else; pretty much the lesson every Face-Eating Leopard Voter eventually learns. Her story arc is bold and entirely well-deserved, as is her husband’s, tho don’t think for a moment that this story team won’t have you on tenterhooks the entire time.

Another character given a lot more play in this adaptation was Kido, the brutal, conflicted head of the Kempeitai. Joel de la Fuente does an amazing turn as the duty- and honor-bound cop whose story arc is almost a complete mirror image of the Smiths. I’d love for him to win some awards for his excellent, nuanced portrayal, especially in this final season. Has awards season passed for this show? The sense of time having no meaning feels rather ironic wrt it.

Juliana also comes across far better in this adaptation than she does in the book. Shorn of racism and most of her neuroses, TV Juliana is certainly still full of steel and an almost incoherent, crazed faith in the films (as opposed to the books in the book, natch) produced by the titular Man in the High Castle. I loved watching her, especially as played by Alexa Davalos who wisely chooses understatement punctuated by blazing flares of violence in her portrayal, as opposed to reading her. I also greatly enjoyed Tagomi, tho I’d liked him from the book, too. Childan’s story arc was also satisfying, even if the book oddly gave him more depth — for large swathes of the show’s narrative, he’s the guy who ties a bunch of story arcs together, an important but oddly tangential role. Honestly, the only character who wasn’t improved on from the book was poor Frank, who was much smaller in spirit here, even tho he does grow to eschew cowardice, if not complete self-absorption.

The first two seasons were good but I felt like it was only in the third, once we’d gotten rid of Frank and Joe (and the completely gratuitous sex scenes with Nicole, good grief) that the show got really focused. I almost wish they’d introduced the Black Communist Rebellion earlier in the series, as they, like the independent Jewish community of Sabra, were far more interesting to me than whatever was going on with Joe. I did like Nicole after she’d moved to America: the underground scene here was so much more interesting than her hedonistic life in Germany. Also, she was much, much more fun to watch when she, like we viewers, didn’t have to pretend to care about Joe any more. Plus, once Joe and Frank were gone, Juliana could hook up with Jason O’Mara’s Liam. I pretty much love Jason O’Mara in everything he’s in, and am still convinced his character was robbed in Agents Of SHIELD.

Unfortunately, the ending of the series, much like the novel’s, felt muddled and rushed. It was really, really great with the Resistance closing in on the Smiths and the portal behaving really, really oddly, but the ending raised far more questions than it answered. Mostly, who in their right mind would come visit Juliana’s home world as a tourist at that moment in time?! I understand the impetus that drove Hawthorne through the portal, but I kept thinking, “It’s not safe! Why would the rest of you do this now?! Shouldn’t you be waiting for less deadly times?!” Like, I’d get it if they looked like adventurers, but they were all dressed like day trippers and my mind was completely boggled.

I’ve become so invested in some of these characters that I do wish I knew what happens to them next, particularly Kido, who’s landed himself in a whole mess of new problems (though his “do I outrank you? Then go away” at the end made me laugh and laugh.) But I’m satisfied envisioning a deserved happy ending for others who made it to the end and further on. While I don’t think the American Reich will just roll over and die, I do think their days are numbered, tho it’ll be ugly and violent till America can truly be free again. I did enjoy the hopefulness of the ending, even if the forced optimism seemed divorced from the political and historical realities that underpinned so much of the show till then. Overall, a really good show that far surpasses its already quite good source material, characterized by some truly excellent performances.

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick was published October 1962 and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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