The Man in the High Castle from Text to Screen

As a writer of novels and short stories, Philip K. Dick seems to have a particular affinity with the visual and auditory world of film-making in both it's big screen and small screen incarnations. The Man in the High Castle (1962) is only the last of his works to be dramatized and to join the long list of adaptations, some more successful than others, but all remarkably intriguing thanks to the unique source material. To mention but a few of the most well known, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) became the legendary Blade Runner (1982), "Second Variety" (1953) became Screamers (1995), "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" became Total Recall (twice, in 1990 and 2012), and "The Minority Report" (1956) became, well, Minority Report (2002).


Dick's best titles are masterfully crafted to excite the reader's curiosity in an odd combination of the outlandish with the mundane. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," for instance, is, on the surface, nothing more than an advertising slogan. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on the other hand, makes one wonder, "Well, do they?" This leads into a profound examination of the meaning of being human in a world in which more and more of our experience is synthetic, or, as Frederic Jameson put it (nearly two decades later), hyperreal. And yet, the pertinence of Dick's intuitions has little to do with the simulated depth of philosophical abstraction; rather, it comes from an uncanny ability to imagine how his characters navigate the vast surface of human existence with all its ripples and cracks. This is nowhere more visible than in his use of replicas, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, to reproduce animals as status symbols (the bigger the beast, the higher the owner's perceived station) because the real thing has gone near-extinct. In a characteristic move, the electric sheep of the title is not a metaphor but a real thing in the fictional world.


Once we, the readers, accept the existence of synthetic creatures as a plausible premise, we are drawn into Dick's imaginary world ready to accept that where sheep are made-to-order, then, why not humans? The replicas then rise before us as mirrors to our own (and the characters' own) humanity, as is bound to happen with all artful re-presentations such as in painting, photography, or fiction. Art, as a mirror of the soul.


While Blade Runner does manage to capture this function of the android as specular representation of the human, in the translation to film, the outlandishness of the premise has replaced the artfully constructed normality that emerges from the novel. Perhaps it is simply due to the written word's ability to whisper its form and content directly into the mind, in the reader's own voice, in contrast with the image projected on a screen that always comes to us from outside ourselves. In part, it is due to the difficulty of adapting certain types of material to the third person perspective of the camera lens. While introspection can always be translated into "outrospection" (as flashback or dream sequence), the psychological experience of introspection, the emotions associated with taking a long, hard, sometimes self-deceiving look inside oneself; that, can hardly be conveyed as effectively in any other medium.


A case in point in the adaptation of Androids is the omission of Mercerism, the technologically mediated semi-religious experience characters can access via the "empathy box." This device leads the user to an encounter with collective suffering that involves witnessing the incessant climb of saintly figure Wilbur Mercer up a mountain slope. As he climbs, rocks falling from the summit periodically strike him inflicting pain and eliciting much needed empathy in a population that can only react to simple, intense, prepackaged emotions. Such emotional experiences are as safe as watching a sitcom or soap opera, and they are delivered in much the same manner --- through a technological mechanism.


In The Man in the High Castle the changes from book to video are more subtle. The premise for the story is that, in an alternate reality, the Axis had defeated the Allies in World War II. As a consequence, the American East Coast is now occupied by Nazi Germany while the West Coast is occupied by Imperial Japan, with the territories in the middle acting as a neutral zone between the two uneasy partners. This alternate reality, however, is not neatly separate from our own. There is one interfering element that places the comparison or contrast between the two versions of history in the text rather than leave it to the reader to figure out. In the video series, actual history invades the alternate universe through newsreels that travel between dimensions and show the Allies winning the war; in the novel, in fine meta-textual fashion, that function is given to a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy whose author, Abendsen, is said to live in the titular High Castle. In addition, the Chinese Book of Changes, or I-Ching, plays a crucial role in the novel but is only ancillary in the series. No more on this to avoid spoilers.


One of the most intriguing aspects of Dick's novel is how well it captures the psychology of a defeated and occupied population, likely modeled on post-war Japan, and then adapts it to the American context. The shock of defeat, the fear of repression and violence, the sense of cultural inferiority, down to the adoption of Japanese mannerisms in behavior and language, give the story its peculiar tone. One character in particular embodies all these traits in both the book and the show: collaborationist antiques dealer Robert Childan (portrayed brilliantly by Brennan Brown), who sells Americana artifacts to Japanese collectors, speaks the occupier's language, is flattered and humbled by any attention from high status Japanese, and despises his fellow countrymen.


The video series follows Dick's work somewhat closely, mainly through the first season, but also introduces additional characters and plot-lines, clearly extrapolating from the rich texture provided in the original text. Two characters in particular stand out as excellent additions that fully respect the spirit of the novel: Reichsführer John Smith and his wife Helen. The first couple of Nazi America, portrayed masterfully by Rufus Sewell and Chelah Horsdal, are a study in collaborationist psychology couched in the paranoia characteristic of totalitarian regimes, which is one of the central themes in Dick's novel. Most remarkably, Sewell and Chelah play these characters with reserve and restraint, and, in spite of their involvement with the appalling racial politics of the Reich, without a tinge of melodrama.


Novel and video series provide complementary, yet different imaginative experiences, and one should not feel that having seen or read the one would prejudice enjoyment of the other. The series claims it is "based" on the novel rather than being a faithful adaptation, so it is only fair to judge it on its own merits. At the same time, the exploration of the themes of power and its nature, violence and its uses, guilt for the subordinate and the hegemon, culture in its materiality, and the historicity of objects, can only be fully enjoyed on the printed page. In true Dickian fashion, the discussion is profoundly unsettling for the reader and the characters, and fails to lead to any transcendental rock-bottom. The only solid ground Dick's characters can stand on is their refusal to accept delusions as shields from existential anguish. In the words of one such character in High Castle: "I am a mask, concealing the real. Behind me, hidden, actuality goes on, safe from prying eyes."


The Man in the High Castle is one of four novels we examine in my course Playful Subversion: Understanding Postmodern Text (offered next in Fall 20).


Andrea Pacor

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