I just finished watching the first installment of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man in the High Castle, for Amazon video. (You can watch it without subscribing to Amazon Prime – at least the first episode; I already feel myself being lured into a subscription to see the rest).
I was a bit skeptical in my earlier post over a year ago about adapting Dick’s ontologically complex novel to big/small screen, but I was generally impressed with the results.
The production values are high, with the cinematography being particularly good in depicting a decrepit urban and rural America under enemy occupation in the early 1960s. Lots of details (street signs, posters, a digitally aged Hitler on television, etc.) are nice touches. (There’s only one gaffe I could spot: Mr. Baynes in a limo with Mr. Tagomi flashes a German identity card with the grammatically incorrect phrase “Das Grobe Deutsche Reich” – undoubtedly a prop person misread the double s (Esszet) of the original German, which is commonly misread as a capital B). Oh well….
There a small number of liberties taken with the original novel, which is necessary given the apparent intention to produce a relatively full-length series. I won’t detail them in this post, so as to avoid spoilers. But those who know the novel will spot them immediately. I will say that much more of the episode takes place in the Nazi occupied eastern half of the U. S. than in the novel, which makes a good deal of sense really.
The Nazis are depicted with an appropriate degree of moral clarity, while avoiding (as much as is possible these days) trafficking in tired clichés.
My one question is how viewers will perceive the episode (and the entire series) given the current political context of the year 2015.
When Dick wrote the novel in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Germany’s Nazi past was in the process of slowly returning to public consciousness, after having been overshadowed by a decade and a half of anti-communist cold war hysteria. Dick hailed from the political left and was a fierce anti-Nazi and, by all indications, wished for the regime’s crimes to remain in public awareness. The fact that his novel appeared after the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann as well as the publication of William Shirer’s bestselling The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich meant that it contributed to the recasting of attention to the Nazi era. In that sense, it had a clear anti-conservative message (as conservatives had endorsed sweeping Nazi crimes under the rug for the sake of cold war convenience).
What about today, though?
My view is that both conservatives and liberals will be able to interpret the series as an indictment of present-day America as a country verging on fascism. I don’t need to remind anyone that many conservatives today view Obama’s America as having already descended into a fascist dictatorship. Meanwhile, liberals have had plenty to say about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s America going the same direction.
In the series, there are scenes supporting both sides’ views.
To name two (spoiler alert!):
Late in the first episode, Joe Blake (an altered Joe Cinnadella) gets pulled over by a state trooper after his truck gets a flat tire. During their conversation, gray flakes start floating through the air and the trooper explains that they are the ashes of the bodies of “cripples” that are being burned “as a drag on the state.” Echoes of “death panels” anyone? Supporters of Sarah Palin will surely endorse this reading.
In another scene, a member of the anti-German resistance is tortured to death in New York City’s Rikers Island prison by members of the Gestapo. In and of itself, the depiction of torture in a post-9/11 world has inevitable connotations that will resonate with left-leaning critics of the CIA. All the more so since Riker’s Island has recently come under fire for abuses of prisoners.
Dick’s novel has its heroes. But so far, it portrays more than its share of American collaborators with the Nazis. Let’s hope the series gets the go-ahead to be brought to completion.