What if?

Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Spend the Weekend in an Alternate History

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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In the sixth episode of Amazon’s excellent new series “The Man in the High Castle,” the Smith family celebrates V-A day (yes, that’s “Victory over America”) at their lovely Long Island home. There’s a backyard picnic, kids run around with sparklers, fireworks go off at dusk, and everybody naturally flies the U.S. flag, with its seven red stripes, six white stripes, and, in the corner, a swastika on a blue field. The scene is stunning in its creepy normality -- and I can say without spoiling anything that it only gets creepier after darkness falls.

“The Man in the High Castle” is based, rather loosely, on a novel of the same title by Philip K. Dick, whose remarkable oeuvre is constantly mined for new ideas. The story is set in 1962, in a world in which the Allies lost World War II. In book and series alike, the U.S. is divided into a German-occupied zone, a Japanese-occupied zone, and a quasi-independent buffer region comprising the Rocky Mountains and parts of the Great Plains.

Early on, the writers have a little trouble developing dramatic tension, and throw in a few obvious contrivances, hoping, perhaps, that the delicious detail of the world they are building for us will keep us tuned in. Surprisingly, it works. The world they create is fascinating ... and frightening.

The television show pulls just the right elements from Dick’s novel, adds some important new ones, and comes up with a product that sparkles. Yes, the acting is occasionally wooden, and a love triangle at the heart of the show never quite feels compelling. But somewhere around the fourth episode, the writers find their footing, and the program becomes mesmerizing -- just the thing for binge-watching over the Thanksgiving break.

Much of Dick’s tale focuses on the characters’ reactions to a novel-within-the-novel called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” in which the Allies won the war. Dick is careful to make “Grasshopper” itself entirely fiction -- nothing like what I suppose we should call real history. In the show, “Grasshopper” becomes a series of banned films, an Allied victory portrayed in fake newsreel footage that to us looks genuine. In the novel, the Man in the High Castle is the author of the novels. In the television show, his role is more ambiguous. He’s described at one point as the creator of the films, at another as a collector of them. Further confusion reigns toward the end of the season when we meet -- but to say more would be telling.

On the page, “High Castle” is a suffocating novel, a lengthy meditation on the nature of reality with bits of plot and dialogue thrown in, and a trio of wickedly delicious twists in the final chapters. To bring the tale to life on the screen, the writers have retained most of the characters, but given them entirely different personas and story arcs. Most of the novel’s philosophical musings are gone. A cumbersome subplot about forged antiques has been discarded. The television version introduces an underground resistance, an odd omission from Dick’s tale. Best of all, whereas the novel is set entirely in the Japanese zone and in the Rocky Mountain buffer, the television show has added New York City, and sets much of the story there. Among the Nazis.

That’s where the show is at its most engrossing -- and also its most troubling.

Consider the Smith family, central to the V-A Day celebration mentioned above. The Smiths are Norman Rockwell by way of “Mad Men” and “The Americans,” after a detour through “The Twilight Zone.” John Smith, the upwardly mobile father, would be Obergruppenführer John Smith of the SS. Smith, played with zesty malevolence by Rufus Sewell, has among his duties counterintelligence. Specifically, he’s tasked with smashing the resistance.

When we first meet Smith, he’s obviously a true believer. As he’s U.S.-born, we instinctively despise him as a Quisling. Yet he’s also the show’s most deeply and deftly drawn character. There’s a whiff of Tony Soprano about him. We see his tender devotion to his family, and we watch him turn on a dime to coldness when he’s called to the telephone for progress reports from his agent inside the resistance. Like Elizabeth and Philip Jennings of “The Americans,” he finds that duty and family can clash -- sometimes painfully.

Other characters are borrowed from the book but given different roles. Japanese bureaucrat Nobusuke Tagomi, whose role in the book is mostly that of a bystander, is brought by the writers to the center of the story. The love triangle involves a factory worker named Frank Frink, his live-in girlfriend Juliana Crain (in the novel she is his estranged wife, and they have no scenes together), and Joe Blake (in the book Joe Cinnadella), who saves Juliana’s life, only to have her save his right back. The writers have invented the ruthless yet complex Inspector Kido (a brilliant turn by Joel de la Fuente of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”), who is charged with the impossible job of solving crime in San Francisco while avoiding the wrath of Japan’s powerful ally. It takes a while for the viewer to begin caring about these and other characters, but it happens -- and then you’re hungry to know what happens next.

There are false notes. In the novel, the Nazis, having finished with the Jews, have committed mass genocide in Africa. The few black people who remain on the U.S. continent have been re-enslaved. The writers try to get around this problem by showing us black people on the streets of San Francisco, and, in the neutral zone, a significant black population, including a diner owner who becomes important as the season moves on.

Yet overall, the television version seems unsure what to do about race. One of the difficulties reading Dick’s novel today is the overt racism of point-of-view characters (one in particular) and the often loaded language. Of course 1962 was a different era of race relations. The show’s writers hint at this reality but never press the point. In an important scene set on an interstate bus, the black passengers are not sitting in the back.

Commentaries about the series have been drawing broad political lessons, and the lessons are certainly there to be mined, for left and right alike. But don’t watch “The Man in the High Castle” to learn some deep truth about America or human nature. Watch it because, in the increasingly crowded universe of scripted drama, it’s one of the best shows on television.

  1. The buffer region is called the Rocky Mountain States in the novel and the Neutral Zone (hat tip to “Star Trek”?) in the television show. The television version changes the names of the German and Japanese zones, too, and dispenses entirely with Dick’s conceit that the South exists as a separate nation, closely allied with the German Reich.

  2. In the novel, the SS no longer exists, its functions having been folded into the SD.

  3. In the novel, Juliana teaches judo, and her skill comes in handy exactly once in the entire story. In the television show, she is skilled in Aikido, and her skill comes in handy exactly once in the entire season.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net