The news that HBO has decided to produce Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, as a miniseries confirms that alternate history has never been more popular in American popular culture.
As I’ve chronicled on this blog, there have been numerous novels, films, television programs, and streaming web series that have appeared to public acclaim in the last several years.
· Ben Winters, Underground Airlines
· David Means, Hystopia
· Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
· Nava Semel, Isra Isle
· Steven King, 11.22.63 (also a Hulu series)
· Timeless (NBC)
· Making History (Fox)
· Confederate (announced by HBO and still pending)
· 1983 (forthcoming on Netflix)
Within this larger body of work, alternate histories of Nazism have been especially popular.
· Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming
· Simone Zelitch, Judenstaat
· Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (Netflix)
· The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel)
· SS-GB (BBC2’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel)
· The Hunt (Amazon’s upcoming Jordan Peele-produced show, about Nazi hunters in 1970s America. it’s unclear whether this will be a secret history or alternate history, but let’s keep our options open for now).
And now comes The Plot Against America.
The reason for the genre’s popularity is obvious. The surge of right-wing political activity in today’s America has made many of us fear for our future and prompted us to seek guidance from narratives that describe how events might have unfolded differently in the past.
Some critics have recently argued that such dystopian narratives have become too much of an emotional burden in an era of heightened anxiety. See “Dear Television, I Can’t Handle Another Prestige Drama About a Fascist Dystopia”).
Yet, based on the success of The Handmaids Tale, The Leftovers, and other likeminded dystopian series, they speak to the national mood. Alternate histories of Nazism are the most politically explicit expressions of this mood and I am excited that they are getting the big budget treatment by the Amazons, Netflixes, and HBO’s of the world.
I am convinced that they serve a salutary function by prompting us to think more deeply about the origins and consequences of historical events.
As for The Plot Against America, I am confident that HBO will remain faithful to the novel’s narrative, but I am curious to see how the network will handle the novel’s final section, where Roth ran out of gas and provided a rough outline – instead of a fleshed-out account – of how America ultimately avoids a dystopian fate.
HBO will have a lot of flexibility in deciding how to pursue this climactic section. In fact, it has a great opportunity to improve on the original.