Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

May/June 2016
 
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
Columns
Curiosities
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
Film
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
 
Science
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Films
by David J. Skal

ALTERNATING CURRENTS

I've been drawn recently and increasingly to the alternate universe of binge watching on-demand cable and internet programming, a viewer-friendly way to escape the time-and-space shackles of traditional television scheduling. Oh, brave new world that has such options in it!

First I stayed up all night fiendishly devouring two seasons of Netflix's House of Cards, then the BBC anthology series Black Mirror, also on Netflix, and now the first season of the Amazon Studios ambitious adaptation—or shall we call it an inspired alternate-dimensional recreation?—of Philip K. Dick's Hugo Award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle, itself an alternate-universe answer to the ever-burning theoretical question: what if Germany and Japan won World War II and subsequently occupied the United States?

Created by writer/producer Frank Spotnitz, a guiding force in the original incarnation of The X-Files, the ten-hour adaptation began as a pilot episode that Amazon trial-ballooned in January 2015 to gauge the possible viewership for a series. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the complete first season made its online debut last November. At the time of this writing, a second season has just been announced.

In Dick's mind-tickling but legendarily "unfilmable" 1962 novel, Franklin Roosevelt is assassinated, and the Nazis wipe out Washington D.C. with a hydrogen bomb. Hitler survives, though other wolves are waiting in the wings. Strictly speaking, Dick's novel isn't scientific speculation about alternative universes; it's a mystically tinged meditation on ever-fluid realities that resist being pinned down. The characters are enthralled by I Ching, or "Book of Changes," a divinatory text that arrived in medieval Japan from China, following the lead of Zen Buddhism. Dick himself claimed to have used the oracle to plot the book. The story is all about changes, variations, and possibilities and comprises three realities: the world in which Hitler won, an imagined literary world in which the Allieds prevailed, but not exactly the same world we live in, and finally, the consensus world we all do seem to inhabit (or in Dick's case, once inhabited).

Some of Dick's more stinging touches were destined to never make the cut (for instance, we don't get to see Bob Hope making anti-Semitic jokes on television, even though there are ample digital resources to have made it happen). Dick alludes to the resurrection of slave trade (following the Nazis' second "final solution" on the African continent, but Spotnitz doesn't go there, at least not in the first season. He does, however, offer us some chilling, tossed-off vignettes, such as pale flakes fluttering in the air over a highway, at first looking like snow. "It's Tuesday," a character explains. "Hospital's burning the cripples and terminally ill. A drag on the state."

 

*   *   *

 

The opening credits are underscored with haunting images and an otherworldly vocal rendition of "Edelweiss," rather like the whispery ghost of Julie Andrews performing The Sound of Music from some far-away concentration camp. Shadowy enemy parachutes drift down past the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore like sooty snowflakes. A map shows the country divided into three regions: the east coast, midwest, and south are all under German control, the western states are occupied by the Japanese, and the Rockies are a neutral zone.

So far, so good. But only a few minutes into the first episode, it becomes clear we're in a somewhat different alternate world than the one described in Dick's novel. For one thing, the story begins with the cloak and dagger machinations of a resistance movement (a perfectly logical development in any occupation, but not something dealt with in the book). Just before being gunned down in the street by Japanese police in San Francisco, a young woman thrusts a battered sixteen-millimeter film canister into the hands of her sister, Juliana Crain. "What is it?" Juliana asks. "A way out," her sister tells her, only moments before being shot dead.

Like a great many things in the series, this doesn't happen in the book, and because the changes are so significant—including not only the plot but characters, their names and relationships—the question of how faithful any dramatic adaptation needs to be, or can be, is immediately raised. At this juncture, we might do well to reconsider the standard sentiment that any loose adaptation of a literary work necessarily disses the book and author. But aren't all cross-media adaptations essentially transformative? Consider Mary Shelley, arguably the mother of science fiction, whose original intentions vis à vis Frankenstein have rarely been respected by filmmakers, and yet her book is still one of the most frequently included titles in the modern college syllabus. Blade Runner certainly took liberties with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ridley Scott, by the way, also serves as one of several executive producers for The Man.) That hasn't diminished Blade Runner's deserved reputation as a science fiction film classic, nor has it damaged Dick's literary legacy. Here, Spotnitz and his production team (including seven writers and nine directors) should be commended for taking a book that's long been considered cinematically untranslatable and building an alternate, expanded rendition—an homage, actually—which still feels convincingly Dickean. Spotnitz actually respects Dick, and it shows.

In the novel, Juliana is intrigued by a transgressive samizdat novel-within-a-novel, Heavy Lies the Grasshopper, penned by a reclusive-elusive scribe, a.k.a. the Man in the High Castle, holed up mysteriously somewhere in the neutral Rockies. Grasshopper imagines a world in which Germany and Japan lost the war, and the United States prospered. Here, Juliana wants to get to the bottom of the mystifying films of Allied victories. If they're not genuine, then the level of fakery is breathtaking. And if they are real, then there must some kind of dynamic, physical interplay between variant realities—which seems to be precisely the case at the end of episode ten, when a character is physically whisked from the drab, depressed postwar occupation to the bright Kodachrome mid-century beloved by baby boomers everywhere.

The novel juggles storylines, but focuses especially on one character, Robert Childan, a dealer in American antiquities that have become an obsession with the occupying Japanese bourgeoisie, who collect old Colt 45s and Mickey Mouse watches like war spoils. Childan's obsequious and increasingly demeaning interactions with an acquisitive Japanese couple provide Dick with some of his best scenes, carefully observed ritual power plays all the more effective for their subtle rendition. In the series, Childan (played with feral nuance by Brennan Brown) has a much smaller presence, appearing in only four of the first ten episodes. The main attention of the series is Juliana (Alexa Davalos, a strikingly noirish performer, with Ida Lupino eyes and Joan Crawford eyebrows). Her increasingly radicalized commitment to the resistance is the key story propellant. As Joe Blake, an American Nazi passing as a resistor, Luke Kleintank is attractively opaque, as he should be, a surface impenetrability masking dangerously shifting allegiances. Rupert Evans plays Frank Frink, Juliana's boyfriend (husband in the novel), who is secretly part Jewish, which, of course, opens all manner of vulnerabilities for him. Rufus Sewell is Obergruppenführer John Smith, an American-born Nazi commander. Both Sewell and Evans are classically trained British actors adept at pitch-perfect American roles.

The octogenarian Adolf Hitler, as imagined by Dick, never makes an appearance in the novel; he's too busy losing his mind to tertiary syphilis. In the series the Führer's health is failing—here, it's Parkinson's disease—but he still has some tricks up his sleeve, has his own as yet unexplained interest in the newsreels, and is convincingly impersonated at the beginning and end of the first season in cameos by actor Wolf Muser. In both the book and the series, Hitler's impending demise is a dog whistle to his heirs apparent, who are more than eager to wipe out the Pacific coast entirely. The series introduces a visiting Japanese prince and an assassination plot that sweeps up Frank as well as a Japanese trade official, Mr. Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), to whom all the I Ching duties of the series are relegated.

One of the trickier characterizations, for writer, director and actor, is Sewell's Nazi commander, an oddly compassionate figure despite his ruthless ascendancy as an assimilated American. Nazism has, in fact, provided him with a simulacrum of the American dream, with suburban comfort and domesticity just one step into Stepford. Smith and his wife, however, have a son with an incurable genetic disease—verboten, of course, under the ironclad principles of Nazi eugenics. Defective party children aren't incinerated on Tuesdays; their more "humane" disposal involves a discreet home euthanasia protocol with no gas chambers whatsoever, and complete family privacy guaranteed. No one sees you grieve, either.

The overall production values (especially the production design of Drew Boughton and cinematography of Gonzalo Amat and James Hawkinson) are eye catching enough to distract from some pesky plot holes. Why does the resistance want to get the newsreels back to the Man? Are they the only copies? Why are they being circulated? Why does Hitler want them? There's going to have to be a second-season explanation of exactly how parallel-dimension movie-making works. Right now, the newsreel is functioning as little more than a Hitchcockian "Mac-Guffin." Dick's surprising explanation—spoiler ahead—that in the end we are all storytellers who can shape our own worlds and realities (and hey, by the way, the Allies did win the war, consensus "reality" notwithstanding) works on paper, but is a highly interiorized conceit that would be a very hard sell on screen. I'm curious to see how the films are produced, what kind of power they have, and generally how Spotnitz and his team will turn Dick's self-referential abstractions into something concrete, objective and filmable. Or, perhaps just surprise us all by going totally trippy in true Dick style for Season Two. Either way, I'll be there again to swallow the whole thing in one big gulp, and hope you'll be there, too.

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to sitemaster@fandsf.com.

Copyright © 1998–2018 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art