Last fall I binge-watched all of the first season of Amazon’s television series The Man in the High Castle. The show is good, right from the opening credits. There is a map of the United States. Conquering Swastikas invade from the Atlantic, heading west to where the Rockies tower over the Plains. Rising Suns swarm in from the Pacific and slice away the West Coast. Only a thin no-man’s-land separates the Germans from the Japanese, in the mountainous spine of what used to be the United States. A sweet, haunting voice sings:
Edelweiss, edelweiss, bless my homeland forever.
The action begins, and we are in the conquered America of 1962. Yeah, that’s good TV.
The source material is good, too. Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternate-history novel took place mainly in Japanese-occupied California, with a look-in on the Neutral Zone in the Rocky Mountains. Germany and the German-occupied United States were mostly off-stage horrors. Dick’s plot was slight: the struggles of Frank Frink (would-be artist, Jew-in-hiding) to survive in San Francisco; the efforts of select Japanese and Germans to prevent a German nuclear assault on the Japanese Home Islands; and the search by Frink’s ex-wife Juliana and others for the eponymous Man in the High Castle.
Hawthorne Abendsen was that Man, hidden in an eyrie in the Neutral Zone, where he had dared to write an alternate history of his own: a novel about a world in which the Allies had won World War II. Dick’s novel concluded with a very Dickian twist—the revelation to Juliana of the “Inner Truth” that Abendsen’s book was true! The Allies had won. Nuclear war was coming—but at least there was the comfort of knowing that none of it was real. This twist is typical of Dick’s Epistemology-101 obsessions (which can grow tiresome).
The novel’s real power lay in its evocation of a conquered America, whose inhabitants cringed before their Japanese overlords, redeemed only in flashes. What would Americans be like if they had lost the war? Something like the defeated Japanese of reality—though perhaps less satisfied with producing trash for their conquerors. When Frank Frink aspired to create artistic jewelry, his distributor refused to turn the ornaments into mass-produced kitsch: “The men who made this … are American proud artists. Myself included. To suggest trashy good-luck charms therefore insults us and I ask for apology.” The novel’s patriotic rejection of commercial whoredom remains thrilling.
The Amazon series, adapted by Frank Spotnitz, expands Dick’s novel nicely. The visual medium gives us a quotidian look at this alternate world, which the serial structure allows Spotnitz to sketch in detail. We see a Nazi New York, and the be-swastikaed suburban home of all-American SS Obergruppenführer John Smith—a character not in the novel. There are crematoria in the Midwest and mass graves near San Francisco, and Spotnitz takes us at season’s end to Germany, to Berlin, Berchtesgaden, and an aged Adolph Hitler who (wonderful conceit by Spotnitz) is another Man in a High Castle. Hitler, after all, is a dark mirror of Hawthorne Abendsen—a man whose book remade a country and a world.
There are other changes, which remind us that the Amazon series is a creation of the United States of 2015, rather than Dick’s 1962. The Amazon series lowers the racial stakes of the Japanese and German occupations. In Dick’s novel, American collaborators used sun lamps to tan themselves to a quasi-Japanese hue; in the Amazon series, every American is comfortable in his skin. Even the Nazis have become somehow less hateful in their Jew-killing: Amazon’s Obergruppenführer Smith refers to “Semites,” not to “kikes.” And while Dick’s Americans sometimes expressed a frank racial dislike of the Japanese—“These people are not exactly human. They don the dress but they’re like monkeys dolled up in the circus”—the Amazon series’s do not.
Our modern racial etiquette softens the punch of Dick’s novel, which used the distorting mirror of Axis racism to cast new light on the racial attitudes and hierarchies of the real America. The Amazon series shrinks from what Dick faced squarely: the raw power of racial hatred, both in the murderous rule of our imagined conquerors and in the answering echo in our hearts.
The optimism of the Amazon series is reflected also in certain consequences of the shift from page to screen. In Dick’s novel, Hawthorne Abendsen wrote a book; in Spotnitz’s rendition, he distributes newsreels. The image, not the word, will change the world. This is the familiar Hollywood self-congratulation: The images that will wake us from our nightmare are the selfsame images that have been entertaining us all these years, into our current state of virtue. It’s the Official Hollywood Story, and it would be nice if it were true.
Only the opening song hints at a darker message. Edelweiss isn’t a traditional Austrian folksong, after all, but a pastiche invented by Rodgers and Hammerstein for The Sound of Music. That musical, and the Hollywood movie that followed it, made a new country: Austria the willing partner in the German Anschluss became Austria the bravely resistant first victim of the Nazis. A nation of Waldheims became a nation of von Trapps. The musical, a near-contemporary of Dick’s novel, in a sense asked the same question as Man in the High Castle, through its portrait of Austria rendered in American idiom. What would we Americans be like if the Nazis had conquered us? Brave, the musical assured us, like the von Trapps, with a song in our hearts.
But the song’s re-use in Man in the High Castle, exquisitely ironized, suggests somberly: The innocent fantasy of the musical was not the truth at all. Dick, Spotnitz tells us, had found a truth that mattered more than the question of who really won the war—the truth that we would not have behaved well in defeat.
Or perhaps I’m overreading. It will be interesting to watch the second season and find out.
David Randall is director of communications at the National Association of Scholars, and the author of Cup of Sorrow, a novel set in Japanese-occupied California.