EPISODE REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle: "Pilot" (Episode 1)

Randall Anthony Schanze
Randall Anthony Schanze's picture

“Fate is fluid. Destiny lies with men.”

--- Mr. Tagomi

Trade Minister, Pacific States of America, Greater Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere, 1962


“The Man in the High Castle” was the 1962 Hugo winner for Best Novel. It was the book that essentially made Philip K. Dick's career as a visionary rather than just another potboiler hack. I stop short of calling it great literature, like some do. In fact, I frequently stop short of calling it very good, as some parts – particularly those involving “Joe” are pretty hacky. The ending is a mess and the very definition of anticlimax.


All that said, the novel has a power that is hard to define. Like all the really good PKD work, it seems to be more than the sum of its parts. That's a cliché, I know, but cliches get started for a reason. I don't know if it was the scotch or the amphetamines or the hundred-word-a-minute typing in weekend-long marathon sessions that allowed his subconscious to roam freer than his conscious plotting would allow, but this novel has that in gangbusters.


Before I'd ever finished reading it for the first time, I wanted it to be made into a movie. Specifically I wanted it to be made by Akira Kurisawa. I felt its ethereal ethos would have been best served by an eastern hand, and a different film making vocabulary.


Thirty years later, here we are: it's a miniseries, not a movie, and Kurisawa is long dead. The series is executive produced by Ridley Scott, however, so you could do worse.


Much like the novel, it is really, really good. I do think I was right about it needing an Asian mindset to really capture the spirit of the material, rather than a straight, chugging-ahead linear narrative that's more-or-less free of poetry. What we get, though, is a nice straight-ahead adaptation with fewer liberties than you'd expect.


The plot is pretty much exactly like the novel: It's 1962. The Allies lost World War II. The Axis partitioned the US up in pretty much the exact same way we partitioned Germany in real history. There's the United States of America (Nazi), the Pacific States of America (Japanese) and the Rocky Mountain States, which is a buffer zone between the two. Just like in the real 1962, the world is in the midst of a cold war: The Third Reich and Imperial Japan were allies in the war, just like the US and USSR were, but no sooner were the gun barrels coolthan the superpowers started jockeying for position in the next war. In this alternate cold war, it's the Nazi and Japanese empires that are poised on the brink of thermonuclear war.


Pretty cool, huh?


The episode, like the book, is not primarily interested in affairs of state, however they drive the story. What it's really about is four unremarkable people – one of them a Japanese political officer – as they go about their lives and get ensnared in the machinations of a rapidly-deteriorating status quo. What makes the book so intriguing is that there is no victory, the bad guys are not defeated. There's no talk, nor even hope, of making the world a better place. Rather, the story is all about keeping the unhappy world from getting much, much worse.


Plotwise not a lot happens. A guy named Joe gets involved with the resistance in New York, and ends up driving a truck with some mysterious stuff on it to Cannon City in “The Neutral Zone.” Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Julia – one of the four principles in the novel, but here bumped up to more-or-less the absolute star – meets up with her estranged sister, who gives her a copy of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” and a bus ticket to Cannon Ciy, then is killed by the police.


In the novel, “Grasshopper” is a book-within-a-book. An alternate history about a world where the Allies won World War II. It's banned, of course. Written by a shadowy figure nicknamed “The Man in the High Castle.” In the episode, it's a film: newsreel footage of the real World War II. Meanwhile, Mr. Tagomi has secret meetings with a Nazi captain who's involved in some kind of clandestine, off-the-books mission of his own devising.


Julia and Joe arrive in Cannon City, meet cute, there's a twist, and then we're done. The end.


It's streaming for free on Amazon at the moment, and I'd suggest you watch it.


Curiously, this is just a pilot. Whether or not they film the remaining three episodes depends on how well this pilot does. It's a new business model, I guess.


Though only produced by Scott, the film has the kind of flat affect of his early film, an unusual color palate (Generally avoiding primaries), and though the soundtrack is not by Vangelis, it does have some definite Vangelis-inspired bits deliberately inffused, most notably in its use of chimes and bells here and there. The acting is good, but also subdued. No one loses their temper. No one yells, nor gets particularly distraught. In particular, Julia doesn't seem appropriately messed up about the death of her sister. I assume this is intended to show how cautious everyone is being all the time, and it fits the tone of the movie, but there's no standout performances here. Alexa Davelos as Julia is the closest we come to that, and that's mostly just because she's given more to do than anyone else in the script. She's kind of a poor man's Liv Tyler. That's not a bad thing by any means.


Visually, it's very impressive. The image that stuck in my mind more than any other is from the opening credits, when we see Nazi paratroopers coming down in front of Mount Rushmore, casting shadows on Washington's face, while a creepy version of Edelweiss plays. New York looks like 1950s New York, only with a lot of swastikas and stuff. San Francisco looks like the poorer sections of Hong Kong. San Francisco is kind of a mini-marvel here, and my regret is that we don't get to explore it more. Cinematography is good, lighting is better than average, direction and editing are well done, best seen in the sequence where Julia watches the “Grasshopper” newsreel again and again and again. There's also a nicely ironic sequence where a friendly, amiable, almost Andy-Griffithesque cop helps Joe change a tire and gives him lunch, then blythly mentions that it's tuesday, when the hospital burns the insane and cripples, who are a burden to the state.


There are some divergences from the novel, but they don't bug me much. There are no TVs in the book. They mention that Irwin Rommel is retired in the show, but in the book he's the appointed president of the United States. In the book, they're on their third Fuhrer, more or less. Hitler's long since dead, Goering is technically still in charge, but has actually been confined to an insane asylum for a decade, and Herman Goering is in charge. In the show, it's still Hitler. I presume because he's the only one most people have heard of. This is done well, though: He's not expected to live much longer, and once he's dead, his successors will doubtless start the war. That's simpler than the reasoning in the book, but it's also cleaner for a TV show. No objections there.


The US didn't enter World War II, and lost the war around 1942 as a result, give or take. In the show, it's said that they lost in 1956. This leads to my only real beef: in the book the occupation has gone on so long that everyone just takes it for granted. There is no talk of liberation, or 'getting our country back' or anything like that. Most of the characters were just kids when we lost, and know no other life. Just like in 1984, there will be no revolution. Just like in 1984, no one would even think of revolting. Julia's boyfriend just wants to make Jewelry, and though one character did bury weapons in his basement after the surrender, he turned them in a decade before when the Japanese declared amnesty for anyone who still had such things, no hard feelings.


In the book, the Japanese are quite a bit more humane than the Nazis. No explanation for this change since the war is ever given. In the show, they might be a hair nicer, but that could just as easily be explained by necessity, poverty, or incompetence. In any event, they are vastly more spiritual.


Assuming we get the remaining three hours, I'm not sure where the show can go. They've covered at least 30% of the novel here, probably closer to half, and as I said, the ending is an infuriating anticlimax. The protagonists literally discover they're characters in a book, and just go home. Really. Even Phil hated that ending, but I won't go into why he used it here. Too involved. They'll need to come up with some new conclusion, and I hope to God it isn't the good guys winning, because that would completely undo the purpose of the story.


Tessa Dick, one of Phil's ex-wives, said she thought it was an extremely well-made TV show, but it wasn't true to the vision of the novel. I politely feel she's mistaken. I think it is true to the vision, but not the soul.


Still: It's definitely worth watching.