Orange is the New Black, Master of None and Jessica Jones: all of this year's must-watch TV has been on Netflix. The only TV shows that I followed on broadcast TV this year were Dr Who and Peep Show, i.e. established shows that built a fan base in the days before streaming TV services. Even these two, I watched on BBC iPlayer and All 4.
Amazon are keen for a slice of this rapidly-growing pie and have several high-profile original shows to compete with Netflix. Recently, they released the first of these shows that I was inclined to watch, a high-budget adaption of Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man In The High Castle. This book was a seminal part of my education in science fiction literature when I was teenager and has been close to me since. It is an interesting project for Amazon to put so much money behind, as Dick is not the most accessible of writers and this is not the most accessible of his books.
On paper, the pitch for this TV series is solid gold. A string of popular movies began life as Dick novels, including Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. The premise of this novel is compelling: what would early 1960s America be like if Japan and Germany had won World War 2? However, Dick's writing is esoteric, and is more focused on the characters’ internal conflicts than on the wider drama of life in a totalitarian society.
This Amazon adaptation has preserved many of my favourite aspects of the book, especially the focus on how Japanese and American culture interact in the occupied Pacific coast states. The book and TV show explore in fascinating detail how the Japanese see American history and American popular culture. It also explores how the Americans act under occupation: who desires to fight back, who desires to escape, who desires to keep their head down and who becomes enthralled by the culture of the occupiers.
The TV adaptation dropped some of the book’s more ethereal scenes. For example, the reliance of the Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), on the guidance of the I Ching is explored in much more detail in the book. Tagomi’s extended thoughts on the wisdom and divine nature of the I Ching are interesting in literature but would be slow paced on television. There is still enough of these details to get an understanding of Tagomi’s character and of the world he inhabits, but a stronger narrative has been built across this world by the TV show’s writers.
One notable addition to the TV show is a great villain in Obergruppenführer John Smith, the head of the SS in the Nazi-controlled Eastern States. Rufus Sewell plays the part of Obergruppenführer Smith with relish, enjoying being a vision of terror but also bringing humanity to the character. The longer format of a ten-part TV show gives the writers a greater opportunity to explore the characters from the book more detail. Luke Kleintank does morally conflicted very well in the role of Joe Blake (Joe Cinnadella in the novel), a Nazi spy who falls in love with Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a new recruit to the resistance movement which he is supposed to be infiltrating. The TV show has a clunky love triangle between Joe, Juliana and her current boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) which adds little to the plot. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is exceptional as trade minister Tagomi, trying to avert the looming conflict between the Japanese and Nazi empires.
The most interesting aspects of the TV show were those that explored how American society could be co-opted by Nazi occupation. It is striking to see American flags and buildings adorned with Swastikas with the same pride as the starts and stripes. This embrace of Nazism by America is best expressed in the character of Obergruppenführer Smith, and the conservative, authoritarian small-town patriarch looks shockingly at home in an SS uniform. It is entirely plausible that apple pie, baseball and bunting could be combined with TV addresses from the Führer on Victory in America Day.
The TV show's vision of a world which combines the culture of the 3rd Reich and 1960s America is convincing, but does not stand up to more detailed scrutiny. Most likely the two would morph into a third, different culture that was not so consciously American. For example jazz music is used effectively in the TV show to evoke the feel of the early 1960s in the mind of the viewer, but no Nazi-based society would have allowed jazz music to become popular. Their music world have been Wagnger or Beethoven, but having the Ring Cycle playing over the start of an episode does not evoke the period that the show is set in. I can understand the show's producers need to take short cuts to establish the period, but it does not lead to a convincing vision of a world where the Axis Powers won the Second World War.
Overall, the Amazon adaptation of The Man In The High Castle was well made and really entertaining. I was hooked from the first episode, sucked into the show’s world and wanting to find out what happened to its characters. This adaptation is sufficiently faithful to the book to keep me satisfied as a fan, and it added enough to make the story work in a different medium. I am glad that Amazon stuck to Dick’s book, with all its inaccessibility, as much as possible instead of taking the basic premise and making a more accessible story.