While webisodes and online-only movies aren’t mandatory for my book, I watched Amazon’s streaming-service Man in the High Castle (all rights to cover reside with current holder) because the Philip K. Dick book is an alt.history landmark by a name SF author. Amazon has thereby wasted several hours of my life that will never return.
The series is set in 1962, the US is divided between German and Japanese occupation, and the situation is tense. Hitler is aging and everyone anticipates the two former allies will be at each others’ throats when a new Fuehrer takes command. The resistance is fighting an apparently losing battle against the occupying forces. And the mysterious Man in the High Castle is trading the resistance valuable intel in return for smuggling various filmstrips to him—movies such as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies triumph, or films showing Stalin still alive in 1954 (later than in our world).
The central characters are Joe, a resistance agent secretly working for the Nazis, and Juliana, who stumbles into the West Coast resistance after her sister gets killed. Both wind up in Colorado delivering films, fall in love, hide their true agenda, hide from a bounty hunter looking for resistance agents and then returning home, doing more resistance or counter-spy stuff, continuing to fall in love… all done without the slightest hint that anyone in this world has any fun.
That’s what makes the series unwatchable to me, ultimately. It’s as if the creators can’t imagine that anyone in the occupied US would actually crack a joke or get on with normal life.That can work OK in movies such as It Happened Here, but for 10 hours with a second season to come; one shot at the end of our regular Earth, brimming with life, just made me feel how lifeless the rest of the series was.
By contrast Dick’s book manages to be both goofier and funnier and more terrifying. One of the central characters, for instance, is an antiques dealer catering to Japanese who want authentic pre-war Americana… only what’s it to do when it turns out enough of his stock is fake to discredit him (I should note I skipped a couple of episodes of the Amazon series so possibly this guy does turn up). It’s funny and interesting. Or the minor detail that TV broadcasting in this world is years in the future (Berlin has just started mass broadcasting in Europe) or that pot is legal.
At the same time, because all this is taking place against the background of occupied America it’s creepier, because people really are getting on with their lives. Sure, that genocidal thing the Nazis did in Africa is horrifying, but oops, gotta go, I have an appointment!
And I like The Grasshopper Lies Heavy because unlike some alternate histories I’ve seen, Dick has someone get “what would have happened if the allies won?” wrong all the way across the board (FDR steps down in 1940, the US establishes a kind of world socialist state after the war ….).
That said, Dick’s philosophical musings get a bit heavy in spots, and the revelation/suggestion at the end that Grasshopper is in some fashion the true reality doesn’t make sense or go anywhere (I think the simplest explanation is that the writer’s cuckoo). It’s an early example of the incomprehensible weirdness of Dick’s last books. But this one’s good, and deserves a better adaptation.