Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Man in the High Castle

My favourite what if? is “What if no-one ever wrote about the Nazis winning WWII?” If you took out all those books from the genre, it practically wouldn’t be a genre any more. But long before it became a genre, professional lunatic Philip K Dick got out ahead of the curve and wrote The Man in the High Castle, a novel set in an America which has been carved up between Japan and Germany after the Axis somehow managed to prevail on the the Asian continent and then figure out how to invade a country full of heavily armed individualists surrounded by thousands of miles of water. Because Dick had no concept of restraint, he threw in not just an alternate history in which the Germans won, but a spare alternate history in which they lost in a completely different way; Philip K Dick was never happy with a story where the characters could be confident about the ground they stood on.

Dick is famously and magnificently unadaptable, because movies don’t do ambiguity, and SF movies have a hard enough time creating a halfway convincing future without undercutting constantly with that hallucinogenic buzz that crackles through all of Dick’s work. The most successful adaptation is still Blade Runner, though it says everything you need to know about “success” in adapting Dick that the most famous quote from the movie was improvised by Rutger Hauer and has nothing to do with the source text. Blade Runner is a great looking movie which succeeds by dumping most of the actual Philip K Dick out of the action. It came out in a time when home video was practically SF, and if you wanted to relive a movie you had to buy the book; there must have been a lot of bewilderment when people brought home Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and started to grapple with the weird and tangled source text.

So, with Blade Runner having worked out so well, it was probably inevitable that when Amazon decided to make a TV show out of The Man in the High Castle, they got Ridley Scott to produce it. And just like Blade Runner, it looks great. The opening titles are clever, even if no-one in their right mind would launch a parachute assault on Mount Rushmore - after all, the Nazis were being run by people demonstrably not in their right minds. And the US after 14 years of Nazi and/or Japanese occupation has a convincing look; I particularly like the fact that in 1962, VW Beetles are not a counter culture statement but just the cars that everyone is driving. And there are moments which sell the way that monstrousness becomes business as usual; a cuddly highway patrolman offhandedly mentions that the ash settling on the roadway is from the weekly incineration of cripples and terminal cases and then gets on with helping someone fix a flat tire. If it was that commonplace, people probably wouldn’t even mention it, but it’s more effective in its way than all the scenes at Gestapo HQ.

Still, scenery is not story, and it’s hard to know whether this show is going to work as narrative. The source text is like all Dick, dreamlike and all over the place, built on characters barely getting by and ending their stories one step forward and two steps back. That’s not the kind of thing that makes for 13 episodes of TV, still less a multi-season cash cow. So the script throws its weight onto the idea of resistance to the Nazis, and the kind of struggle in the shadows against the Gestapo and the Kempeitai that we’ve seen a million times. Up front as the McGuffin to all of this is a series of movie reels which show an alternate reality in which the Axis lost. In the book, it’s not movies, but a book, making it much harder to decide whether the alternate reality is a an echo of another universe or just a comforting fiction cooked up by a man chafing under the weight of occupation and defeat. It’s harder to maintain that kind of ambiguity with a movie within a movie, simply because in a totalitarian world it would be so much more difficult to make a convincing movie showing the top dogs getting their arses kicked. In all likelihood the long game for this TV adaptation is going to be some version of the movie reels being news from another universe. It may well work, but it won’t be true to the source.

1 comment:

#6 said...

Argh! It's not a "parachute assult on Mount Rushmore". The parachutes appearing under the eyes of the presidents on Mount Rushmore during the opening titles are supposed to be symbolic of tears!

Even I could see that & I never set foot in my University's Art School building!