I have a tendency to judge adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick by how much I think they reflect the spirit and tone of his novels. I suppose we all do this, and it’s not like there’s an official stand on which everyone agrees. Dick is said to have loved Blade Runner, while I felt that movie left out the wrong parts from the novel. There is also the disorienting feeling his books bring on the reader. This is something that has rarely been captured on film ... one scene in Total Recall did it, and A Scanner Darkly got it for an entire movie.
Amazon’s TV series, The Man in the High Castle, doesn’t really get Dick, either, but that doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would. The novel is unlike his other books, so the “non-Dick” factor is built in. The premise of book and series is simple, an alternate history where the Axis wins World War II. The series does a beautiful job of world creation, especially with the sets and cinematography. Much of the world we see is dark and grimy (it takes place in 1962, with Japan in control of the West Coast and Germany controlling the East). While I wouldn’t say the tale is simple, it’s very controlled for a Phil Dick story. Once you set up the alternate history, everything else falls into place. I don’t want to overstate the ways the book differs from his other novels. The ways the characters interact with each other and with their environment are very Dickian. But the hallucinatory feel of his writing is mostly absent from The Man in the High Castle, which may be why it’s the one that won awards.
I usually attribute that psychedelic feel to drugs, both the ones Dick was taking as he wrote, and the ones that turn up in his books in the mid/late-60s. But this stuff was there, even before High Castle, even before drugs. Take this Wikipedia description of an early novel, Eye in the Sky:
The title refers to the gigantic, all-seeing eye of God; at least, that is, as a manifestation of one Arthur Silvester's personal worldview. He is an elderly schismatic Bábí World War II army veteran whose inner life is initially forcibly imposed on several other characters as the result of the involuntary formation of a gestalt consciousness after a nuclear accident.... While on a visit to the (fictional) Belmont Bevatron in then near-future 1957, eight people become stuck in a series of subtly unreal worlds, caused by the malfunction of the particle accelerator. These are later revealed to be solipsistic manifestations, bringing the story in line with Dick's penchant for subjective realities.
Or this, from another early novel, Time Out of Joint:
Ragle Gumm believes that he lives in the year 1959 in a quiet American suburb. His unusual profession consists of repeatedly winning the cash prize in a local newspaper competition called, "Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?". Gumm's 1959 has some differences from ours: the Tucker car is in production, AM/FM radios are scarce to non-existent and Marilyn Monroe is a complete unknown. As the novel opens, strange things begin to happen to Gumm. A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it in block letters. Intriguing little pieces of the real 1959 turn up: a magazine article on Marilyn Monroe, a telephone book with non-operational exchanges listed and radios hidden away in someone else's house.... A neighborhood woman, Mrs. Keitelbein, invites him to a Civil Defense class where he sees a model of a futuristic underground military factory. He has the unshakeable feeling he's been inside that building many times before.
Despite the enormous effect the alternate history in High Castle has on the reader, who knows what “really” happened, the characters live as if the world is “normal”. This is what makes the book different than most other PKD novels, and it’s why I think of it as simpler than his other books. Easier to take in, perhaps, but without the disorienting feel Dick is so good as portraying, The Man in the High Castle is a bit dull.
(I wrote a silly, I Ching-based post about the novel, which you can read here.)
All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I don’t expect The Man in the High Castle television series to feel Dickian ... the novel doesn’t feel that way to me, either. It’s actually rather liberating, as the series can focus on the story and the characters, making great use of their creation of the alternate history, without worrying how close they are to Phil Dick.
When it is good, The Man in the High Castle is very good indeed. I can’t say enough about the great work of the people who put the vision of the creators on the screen. And there are a couple of excellent performances, Rufus Sewell as a Nazi bigwig, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a Japanese trade minister. (Special shout out to Burn Gorman as a bounty hunter.) But one of the main characters, Joe Blake, is as boring as his name, and I can’t tell if the character is written poorly, the actor is too bland, or both, but it leaves a hole in the screen. Alexa Davalos is asked to carry much of the show, and she’s adequate, but in this case, she might be better suited to a supporting role.
Still, the world creation is remarkable, the plot moves along, and if it isn’t a great series, it at least has me looking forward to Season Two.
Addendum: Tim Goodman wrote a piece today about what he calls “Amazon’s baffling TV strategy”, which seems to amount to getting people to buy Amazon Prime where they can get free shipping for that pair of socks they purchased, and oh, we have movies and TV shows too, and oh, a few of those TV shows are ours.