I read Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel “The Man in the High Castle” whilst I was at university. Truthfully, I went through a bit of a PKD phase, and to this day I still think he was a magnificently talented writer. Though I’m never quite sure if I prefer Robert Heinlein, Dick’s politics at least align more closely with my own.
Anyway, “The Man in the High Castle” was probably my favourite of his novels. I’ve been hearing rumours of attempts to make a TV or film adaptation for a while, and truthfully when I heard that it was going to be one of Amazon’s gimmicky Prime pilots, I was a little disappointed. I would have preferred Netflix, really. They made a fantastic job of House of Cards, and I’m sure they would with this.
But hey, you work with what you have. So this is an hour-long pilot episode for a potential new series to be produced by Amazon Prime (formerly LoveFilm), if the good people of the world vote for it enough for Jeff Bezos to think he can make money off it (Well it can hardly be worse than the Fire Phone, can it? -Ed).
So is it worth investing (your) time and (Amazon’s) money in?
For those who aren’t already aware of the premise, The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate reality where Japan and Germany won WWII. The United States is partitioned between Japanese (The Japanese Pacific States) and German (The Great Nazi Reich) occupation, with a neutral zone — Rocky Mountain States — down the middle.
The pilot follows two characters in the 1960s. On the East Coast, Joe Blake joins up with the resistance, to take a truck with unknown cargo to the Rocky Mountain States. In San Francisco, Juliana Crain watches as her sister is killed by Japanese secret police, and finds a film of old newsreel showing the Allies winning the war. She decides to take her sister’s place, and take the film to the Rocky Mountain states. And in the background, political games play out as Adolf Hitler gets older and weaker.
So, there are a number of necessary changes made to the source material. The characters, firstly, but that makes sense. This is — hopefully — a TV series rather than a novel. Also, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” is now a film of newsreel, rather than a counterfactual history book. I have no real issue with that though, as long as the soul is there.
And the opening credits are, to be honest, magnificent. Nazi imagery laid over American icons, all to the haunting sound of Edelweiss. I think I’d commission it on basis alone:
The pilot does an excellent job of setting the scene, without being too blunt with it. We see the important bits — the Japanification of the west coast, the SS torturing people in New York — but it never feels too much, even with Nazi uniforms on everything. There’s a scene between German and Japanese officials, where at the end the Japanese bow, and the Germans Nazi salute. A little heavy , perhaps, but it goes a long way.
It also uses subtle pacing to emphasise a climate of fear. Both for Joe transporting his cargo to its destination, and Juliana heading on someone else’s unknown mission, there is a sense that discovery is imminent, and a resultant tension throughout.
What I loved, though, was how well the two storylines were woven together, to an eventual meeting at the diner. And behind it all you have the tension of politics, with minor officials trading information on the decline of Hitler — who one character suggests has Parkinson’s — and the jostling for position of Goebbels and Himmler, either of whom would apparently use nuclear weapons to prise the rest of the US from Japan’s grip.
As it winds to an end, with minor characters, families and associates of the two main characters, are captured, killed and tortured, it sends a shiver down the back, even as the cliffhanger twist is revealed.
I hope that this is commissioned. It takes its liberties in the right places, keeps enough of the soul intact, for it to really fulfil the radical and groundbreaking spirit of the novel. We get to see things at a high level with the grand politics which shape the world, and at a lower level with the people on the street who live in it. The characters and the world seem to come to life, and the whole thing leaves me genuinely excited for more.
This is the first Amazon Pilot I’ve bothered to watch, but this is exactly the sort of show which needs to be made, regardless of who makes it.
And the best part? The whole pilot is free to view, and is even on YouTube. Sit back, and enjoy: