January 26, 2015

An Alternative History: THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

Note: this blog has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com, and we do get a small commission if you click on the link and order products.

Unlike many other streaming video services, Amazon.com is providing some of its series in total (think Transparent) and others are being presented as part of Pilot Season, allowing people to watch and vote. One of the options is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle [HD] , produced (in part) by Ridley Scott.

Its first episode is being streamed for free, and I heartily recommend you view it. Not just because it's free, but because it's pretty sharp, well-written television.

Based on the novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle focuses on an alternate world where the Axis Powers won World War Two....and we catch up with American life in 1962. America is carved up into three zones - the Nazi occupied East, the Japanese-occupied West, and a "neutral zone" along the Rocky Mountains. The series focuses on two people - a  man hired for a mysterious cross-country trip, and a woman who meets her sister after years of separation....and both find themselves dealing with a mysterious film can with the title The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Life for people in this world is gray, and dour, and - admittedly - trying: the episode opens with a film reel of typical American scenes, and the reel ends with an American Flag - with swastika - and the words "Sieg Heil".
Admittedly, this isn't quite feel-good television fare, but it shouldn't be - as a kickoff episode (Amazon's encouraging people to vote this episode up or down), there's enough in The Man In the High Castle to encourage further episodes. Enough is set up in this parallel world to warrant further exploration. Admittedly, there's a washed-out quality to the production (shot in England and Seattle, there's a grayish quality throughout the production), and it may not necessarily seem like easily accessible fare (some nice action-adventure elements are added to the story), but it's a nice, almost casual examination of a world of "everyday evil", as Graham Parker might say....and thankfully, there's no obvious political overtones (meaning - if you're looking for the show to condemn those on either side of the aisle, there's no obvious metaphor for either.). It's a thoughtful examination of the "people after the apocalypse" trope that views like The Walking Dead with Nazis instead of zombies.

...and if you're looking for a comparison with the Phillip K. Dick novel, there really isn't much of one. Both take place in a similar history, but Dick's novel is much more of a meditation on the influence of chance, on the nature of being "authentic", and on the everyday evil that permeates regular life. (The book refers to the I Ching more frequently than the 1896 storyline on Dark Shadows). It's an examination of people living in the aftermath....and although both involve a work of art titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the way that art is handled in both reveal levels of meaning. In Dick's novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a "banned book", and part of the plot involves meeting the author to determine just how he came to visualize such a world. In Amazon's Man in the High Castle, it's an illicit newsreel - a visual representation of what might have happened (in Dick's book, the "Allies won" timeline differs from actual history) - that kickstarts the narrative.

Either way, both the pilot episode of The Man in the High Castle - as well as Dick's novel - are worth experiencing. Since the pilot is free for Amazon members, it's definitely worth checking out.

As far as the book, there's always the local library.

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