Amazon’s streaming video service is in the middle of another pilot season—which means they’ve posted a number of TV pilots and are seeking viewer input to decide which should be developed into full series. This time around they’re offering at least one must-see—an ambitious adaptation of author Philip K. Dick’s alternate history sci-fi The Man in the High Castle.
As written and produced by “The X-Files” writer-producer Frank Spotnitz, “The Man in the High Castle” deviates heavily from Dick’s original. That’s hardly a sin. His stuff is pretty trippy and hard to translate into the visual medium. Like Blade Runner and Total Recall and a few others, however, Dick’s basic concept remains. In this world Japan and Germany won World War II. They divided up America, with Germany taking the East Coast and Japan getting the West Coast. The year is now 1962, and Hitler is on the verge of dying. Gossip on the street is that this might set off a new war between the Axis powers.
We see this totalitarian world in bits and pieces through a number of divergent characters. Several protagonists/
A lot of Dick’s book, oddly enough, deals with the antique business and an underground industry which fakes pieces of Americana (from Civil War pistols to Mickey Mouse watches) in order to sell them to culture-hungry Japanese collectors. This ties heavily into the novel’s theme of what is and is not reality. That’s carried into the character of Hawthorne Abendsen, a reclusive science fiction author (and blatant stand-in for Dick himself) who has written a novel titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. The novel posits an alternate reality in which the Allied forces triumphed in World War II. In other words, the fake novel-within-a-novel is actually reality. The TV series replaces Abendsen’s novel with the film reel Juliana is smuggling (and Joe as well, as it turns out). It’s a loop of newsreel footage that shows Americans winning the war. Though this MacGuffin serves more or less the same purpose (and in a much more visual way), the TV series doesn’t yet have the same existential vibe.
For now the 1-hour pilot does an impressive job of world-building. Amazon Studios has clearly dumped a lot of time and money into this project, and it looks slick as hell. It’s more than enough to whet a lot of appetites for what happens next—which is anyone’s guess, since the pilot plows through a chunk of the book’s slim narrative.