Have you ever wondered what life would be like if things were different? Of course you have. Everyone wonders at some point what their life would be like if they hadn’t stopped at that service station on the M4 on a wet Tuesday in February and spent 30 minutes getting their brains reduced to a pile of boredom induced sludge by an appliance salesman called Dave from Swindon.
Or what about mysterious encounters, lost opportunities in love and work? Many of us dwell on our past mistakes and the road less traveled. It’s a natural and very human thing to do.
The Road less traveled
But what happens when these personal ‘What ifs?’ become global in scale? What happens when we apply them to history and the big turning points of world events? Well, what we get is a work like ‘The Man in the High Castle’ – a novel by Philip K Dick which posits a very interesting scenario: What if the Axis powers had actually won the second world war? In his novel, Dick takes this question and imagines the result of this twist of fate to be a nightmarish post-war world where America is divided between two occupying forces – the Nazis who control most of the continent and the Japanese who preside over a slice of the western, pacific territories with a shakily maintained ‘Neutral’ zone between the two powers.
This scenario is carried over into the television adaptation of the novel which is one of the first few Amazon exclusive productions and seems to carry an impressive budget as no expense is spared on creating an authentically believable America under Japanese and Nazi rule. As you can imagine, this is no post-war Utopia or land of promise. It is is very much a land where fear, suspicion and paranoia become a part of everyday life for a lot of citizens.
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy
At the centre of the story are two main characters. Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) is a thirty something woman living in San Francisco and learning Japanese martial arts in her spare time. She seems to be happily involved in a relationship with her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) until her sister Trudy urgently drops a number of subversive films in her lap, quite literally, one evening, a few minutes before getting shot by the Japanese secret police.
A distraught Juliana watches the films and is shocked to see that they reveal an alternative history in which the Allies actually did win the war. Although she and Frank are unable to comprehend exactly what the films mean she becomes determined to find out, even going as far as being willing to travel across the country to the Neutral Zone to meet a mysterious contact who she must hand the films over to.
Running in parallel with this story, over in east coast New York, Joe Blake seeks out an underground resistance leader who needs a courier himself to take copies of the same films across country. Only it doesn’t turn out to be quite as simple as that. After all, this is effectively a police state very much in the Orwellian mold and there are eyes everywhere. As you can quickly imagine, the fates of Joe (Luke Kleintank) and Juliana soon become entangled as they meet in the mysterious Canon City in the middle of the aforesaid neutral zone. Each is unaware of the others true motives but they find themselves drawn together as the pilot episode moves to a close.
As I mentioned above, this is a chilling American dystopia which does a great job at creating a plausible, living and breathing alternate view of history. However, what it manages so well visually it doesn’t quite manage so well in other areas. The story is very flimsy, paper thin even. But to be fair, the book has some even wilder ideas about this ‘What if?’ post-war scenario so maybe that isn’t greatly surprising .
Whilst the pilot ticks along at a good, even pace which keeps the story moving, the premise that the resistance would be routing these films through a complicated network of spies doesn’t really add up. The films are titled ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ which we learn is a reference to a Bible passage (Ecclesiastes). However, In the Dick book, the films are not films but actually a “book” by someone called Hawthorne Abendsen and while this change makes sense in a more visual medium like television it still doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t really a powerful enough notion to carry a whole series on. A series we assume will incorporate multiple seasons.
The impression that you get from the pilot is that while the concept of a Nazi and Japanese-ruled America makes for an intriguing premise and allows writers to present a number of engaging sub-plots, the central theme doesn’t seem strong enough to keep audiences interested in the long term. Lost suffered from a similar issue but was able to lift initially apparent sub plots and minor characters into the foreground in order to build a compelling narrative and story arc.
The sub plots in TMITHC do introduce some intriguing characters, such as the Japanese trade minister who, concerned about the fate of the Japanese territories in the event of Hitler’s death (yes, Hitler is still alive and well in this reality), reads ominous signs in his I Ching predictions and confides in a sympathetic renegade Nazi officer Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard). Also, the Japanese chief of police, Inspector Kido, is suitably well drawn as is Juliana’s fiance Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) and we are certainly lead to believe that they will feature more prominently as the series progresses.
With this in mind, it is distinctly possible that The Man in the High Castle will take a similar direction creatively to shows such as Lost by building a mythos or message that lasts beyond its initially simple scope. It is a show that promises to engage and entertain despite its flaws and even by deviating from the source material by such a large degree it still has the potential to succeed on its own merits.
The Man in the High Castle is an original Amazon series and is available to stream as a complete series via Amazon Video / Amazon Prime. Amazon is currently offering a 30 Day free trial, which is long enough to binge watch The Man in the High Castle!
There’s also a re-issue of the Philip K. Dick novel to tie in with the series.