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The Man in the High Castle: A Sci-fi Classic Squeezed Onto the Little Screen

This time around, Emad El-Din Aysha tackles the long-awaited televised adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel, The Man in the High Castle, tackling politics and alternative realities, morality and preferred casting choices...

Philip K. Dick’s (PKD) sci-fi classic of classics, The Man in the High Castle (1962), has finally been adapted to the screen and with Ridley Scott at the helm. Well, adapted to the TV screen with Scott as executive producer, but it’s better than nothing. Apparently good old Ridley has been trying to get the novel produced since 2010 to no avail, and then Amazon Studios stepped in and saved the day. Just watched the first two episodes – the pilot and the follow-up.

Fingerprints of the Future

Here you have an alternate 1962 where the Axis Powers won the Second World War and America is defeated and occupied, with the East Coast controlled by the Nazis, and the West by the Japs, with a supposedly neutral buffer-zone in between. A young man, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), joins the resistance and is given a mission to head to the neutral zone. You guess straightaway who he’s working for even if you haven’t read the story but you feel this idealistic boy is in store for a lot more than any of us bargained for so you cut the creators some slack. On the other side of the continent is Juliana Crain, played by the luscious Alexa Davalos, who takes the place of her sister in the resistance and also heads off to the neutral zone to hand deliver an inexplicable video reel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (originally an alternate history novel within the PKD novel where the allies win the war).

American Snitch: Luke Kleintank would have been perfectly comfortable in Philip K. Dick’s real world of McCarthyism.

Meanwhile a mysterious individual, a German army intelligence officer disguised as a Swedish businessman, comes to San Francisco to warn the Japanese of an impending nuclear strike by the Nazis. Hitler is dying and the Nazi leadership is getting tired of sharing North America with the Japs. They give too much of the story away early on – typical for Americans – but the extra characters are quite likeable and amorally intriguing in their own right, and the new surprises you’re not ready for make up for these shenanigans. The music is good, the camerawork is impressive, there’s tension and pacing and unnecessary action sequences (no complaints), but the point is that it convinces you that this world is for real, that something as horrendous as this could in fact happen.

This is television so it’s far more restrictive than the big screen, and others are directing the individual episodes; nonetheless Ridley Scott does a good job and there’s little signature marks strewn all over the place – the family Polaroid and the origami. If anyone can visualise PKD’s peculiar worlds, it’s the man responsible almost singlehandedly for Blade Runner (1982), aka Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). His British sensibilities are also on display, evident in the lampooning of the lawlessness and racism of the Wild West. Again, no complaints!


Dynamic Duo: Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick during the filming of Blade Runner.

 

Tailor-Made Alternatives

The casting is good, though it does not match the original characterisations in the novel, and you can begin to see why they chose these actors as the events unfold. The heroine of the series doesn’t look a thing like the Juliana in the original story and her personality is not nearly as complex, which is a shame, but has its uses. She’s very continental looking (Alexa does in fact have a European ancestry), so she’s right for a WWII-type movie, and her flattish face and the sheen of her skin makes you think she’s part Oriental. She lives on the West Coast and is a Judo master (helping her recover from a tragic accident) and respects Oriental culture despite her patriotism (she gets a Chinese herbal drink for her arthritic mother).

Look at Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves (1990), and you’ll think she’s from a multi-racial background, meant to signify her love for her newfound people, despite her settler origins. Even the Nazis here are darkhaired – Rufus Sewell – in an effort to toy around with visual stereotypes.

My preference for Juliana would be, as always, Carrie-Anne Moss (CAM). She’s got the acting ability, the martial arts physique and the complexion. Here’s a quote from the novel, talking about the author of Grasshopper: “We have a folder on Abendsen and it seems he is attracted to a certain type of dark, libidinous girl. A specific Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean type.” I’ve been told the same thing by journalist friends, whenever I showed them a picture of CAM in my earlier movie reviewing days. Look at the “dark, libidinous” character she played in Memento (2000).


Alternate Personalities: Carrie-Anne Moss can play a range of nationalities.

As for Joe, in the novel he was an Axis power veteran, an Italian, also headed to the neutral zone on a secret mission. My preference would have been Rutger Hauer, maybe a little older than the original character but with the right disheveled look and rugged personality. After their first sexual encounter Juliana describes him thus: “Maybe he’s done it so much, she decided. It’s second nature; his body makes the motions, like mine now as I put these plates and silver in the sink. Could do it with three-fifths of his brain removed, like the leg of a frog in biology class.” He’s a former commando, left over from the war, with his moral faculty and freedom of will more or less burned away in combat and meant to signify the kind of world the Nazis have built. Juliana, by contrast, is America, torn between this nihilistic fate and the warmth and humanism of the East.

That’s why she lives in the neutral zone in the novel. PKD was trying to tell the Americans to wake up and not head on blindly towards a nuclear confrontation with the Russians and instead take up the pacifist (or is that Pacific?) philosophy of hippie culture he adhered to. There’s sixties nostalgia in the series, with hints at the sexual revolution of that era. While middle aged, Juliana’s still got her figure, thanks to the Judo, meant to signify the benefits of the Eastern regimen, also hinted at in the TV series.

Conflicting Timelines: East and West don’t coexist so well in fiction as in fact, but it’s still the West’s fault!

As for PKD’s obsession with Nazis, it stems partly from his terror that the Americans were becoming like the very people they fought so hard to defeat, again thanks to the confrontation with the Soviet Union. The same holds true today with the war on terror, and the fact that you can’t tell who’s spying on you, a clear theme in the series, along with torture. And who’s the main victim in the war on terror? Hence, the relevance of this series to us. Note that replacing the Grasshopper novel with a movie is meant to signify the power of art to change reality, leaning towards visual arts given the era of social media we’re in (the propaganda power of media is highlighted early on).

That’s the role played by the artisan/artist Frank Frink (Rupert Evans); good performance but Adrien Brody from The Pianist (2002) would have been so much better. So, technically, the themes from the novel are more-or-less intact, if updated and modified, which is as well because they are more relevant than ever. I can’t wait to watch the remaining episodes and start mixing and matching themes and scenes. Let’s hope the series spurs a movie version, and it gets the casting and all the themes straight this time round!!

 


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