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The Man in the High Castle never lets us believe its alternate-history nightmare

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Even when the Nazis win, America can’t lose

Amazon

White middle-class Americans, as a rule, love pretending to be underdogs. We love the idea of re-fighting the Revolutionary War, reduced from a global superpower to a scrappy band of rebels. In our politics, it can manifest in nasty ways — nothing's more dangerous than a powerful group with a persecution complex — but in fiction, it's what gives us classics like Red Dawn and any number of alien invasion stories.

No matter how much we may identify with the conquered, though, we can't seem to imagine actually living as them. And apparently, that's true even in Ridley Scott's well-recieved Amazon pilot adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle.

No matter how much we want to identify with the conquered, we can't seem to imagine actually living as them

Compared to unfilmable fever dreams like Ubik and VALIS, The Man in the High Castle is one of Dick's less mind-bending books. Most of it speculates on a familiar theme: what if the Allies had lost World War II? Two decades after an Axis victory, Germany and Japan each rule half the United States in an uneasy truce, and no one is satisfied by how things turned out. Hitler's impending death has created a power vacuum, the Japanese are well aware that they're not safe from the Nazis' genocidal ambitions, and Americans are either erasing their culture or selling it off piece by piece to kitsch-obsessed Japanese businessmen.

The book is full of bizarre speculative fiction details. Africa has been blasted into a wasteland, the Mediterranean was drained for farmland, and Bob Hope does comedy routines about the Nazis' plans to colonize Mars. They're less interesting, though, than seeing characters — a Japanese trader, a German secret agent, an American antiques dealer — navigate two empires obsessed with racial and national differences. Even the most steadfastly xenophobic American is plagued by doubt and humiliation, half-convinced that the country deserved to lose. Here, resistance doesn't mean fighting a guerrilla war; it means preserving your self-worth in a society in which you've become inferior. By the time things start getting genuinely weird, reality breaking down in true Dickean fashion, we understand just how strange it is for characters to see their world change.

Amazon's pilot manages to look as grim as Dick's book feels (despite some early establishing shots of the kind of vaseline-focus steampunk cityscapes that characterize budget-conscious CGI dystopias); everything is fittingly rough, grimy, and cramped. Despite it all, we are assured from the first minutes that America is still fighting. "My father told me what it was like before the war," says fresh-faced rebel Joe Blake, who's found one of Nazi-occupied New York's small pockets of resistance, in the opening scene. "He said every man was free."

Things get much more complicated, and as in the book, no one is what they seem. The Nazis seem determined to stop the spread of an underground film called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which shows a world where America wins the war in preternaturally realistic detail. A young couple is drawn into a plot to distribute it, and Joe Blake begins a mysterious cross-country trip for the resistance.

The pilot is telling a different, more comforting story than Philip K. Dick's book

Given that large sections of Dick's novel are about Japanese gift etiquette, I Ching divination, and jewelry production, there's no shame in punching up the action, especially if The Man in the High Castle hopes to get a full season order from Amazon. By moving around some plot points, it even seems set to resolve the book's tantalizing cliffhanger ending (Dick tried and failed several times to write a sequel before his death.) But as a result, the pilot is telling a different, more comforting story.

The first time we see The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, it's in protagonist Juliana Craine's dingy apartment. "It shows us winning the war!" she exclaims, brushing off her boyfriend's insistence that the tapes are only well-produced fiction. "They look real because they are real." In our reality, she's right, of course — it's newsreel footage of the Iwo Jima flag, the Japanese surrender, and celebration in Times Square. It's as if she's known all along that the world she's living in is just a contrived "what-if" scenario, one that will collapse as soon as the credits roll. She's just been waiting for the evidence.

That's a fittingly Dickean idea. But it's far too easily won. We're never forced to contemplate what real loss might look like, the kind of loss that the novel evokes so well. Oppression isn't just about laws and violence, it's about ideas: winners create a "natural" order and put themselves at the top of it, making rebellion seem not just difficult but downright nonsensical. Being able to see through these skewed realities isn't just a starting point, it's a journey of its own — and it's one that The Man in the High Castle's pilot, to its detriment, doesn't make us take.