Another year, another adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story. Dick’s oeuvre has proven to be a considerable source of fodder for Hollywood. Some of the biggest science fiction movies in history originated from Dick’s mind, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report (as well as a few bombs, like Screamers).
Even amongst this storied history, Amazon’s TV adaptation of Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle is special. It’s not just a good sci-fi story, but an important one. I admit I haven’t read the book in decades (something I hope to rectify soon), so I can’t provide a detailed comparison of the book and the TV series, but the show manages to hit upon the core themes Dick explored in the novel. Of particular importance is the idea that humanity can become shockingly complacent to brutality given the right circumstances.
I will try to not reveal any major spoilers in my discussion as there are revelations best discovered on one’s own…
The Man in the High Castle presents an alternate reality in which the Nazis obtained the atomic bomb before America and therefore won World War II. The Nazis occupy the East Coast, while the Japanese occupy the West Coast. Juliana Crain, a citizen of the Pacific States, obtains a copy of a film reel depicting an Allied victory during World War II. A local resistance cell instructs her to go to the Neutral Zone separating the German and Japanese empires to deliver the film to a person known only as the Man in the High Castle. From the other side of the country, Joe Blake receives a similar film reel and brings it to the Neutral Zone, where he meets Juliana. However, they are soon pursued by Nazi SS agents and the Japanese Kempeitai.
Amazon and showrunner Frank Spotnitz did an incredible job bringing this alternate reality to life. This really feels like 1960s America under Axis occupation, down to the smallest detail. In the tradition of Ridley Scott (who served as executive producer), each frame is brimming with detail. Everything else about the show screams top-notch quality. As with Netflix’s Daredevil, the acting, the effects, and the writing speak well to streaming services as the future of TV.
The show’s budget wasn’t just used to tell a story, but rather to say something important about humanity. The ability to feel empathy is a core theme of Philip K. Dick’s works. Dick recounts that when he read the diary of a Nazi official, he realized lacked any sense of human empathy. He later wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (adapted as Blade Runner) to explore the extent to which empathy makes us human. The detectives in that novel even use a device to test for empathy in androids. However, The Man in the High Castle suggests that the line between human and inhuman is much blurrier than we’d like to admit.
From old World War II movies to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazis have worked well as villains because they’re so easy to hate. We have a visceral reaction against Adolf Hitler, the swastika, and Nazi paraphernalia because of the evil they represents. Or so we hope. The Man in the High Castle suggests that we might hate Nazis not because they are inhumanly evil, but rather because they resemble us so closely and committed such evil. After all, we’re not talking about some distant, “primitive” country. On the eve of Hitler’s rise, Germany was arguably the most advanced state in Europe. It had experienced the Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and all the other historical trends that were supposed to make the West so “civilized.” And yet, Germans took part in the most brutal regime of the 20th century (a century in which they had plenty of competition).
Nearly any other story about an alternative reality in which the Allies lost World War II would focus on a resistance movement against the Axis occupiers. Yet, the world of The Man in the High Castle appears quite normal. Too normal. Despite the presence of a small resistance movement, most Americans are complacent, if not accepting, of their Axis overlords. The vast majority of people can remain comfortable so long as they keep their heads down and eyes turned away. Given the right set of circumstances, we too can turn a blind eye to the furnaces and the midnight arrests. This is admittedly difficult material for most Americans, who have never lived under an authoritarian government, but sadly reflects the reality of much of the world for much of history.
In fact, the TV series tones the story down from the novel. According to an interview with Spotnitz on io9, the TV show increased the role of the resistance in part to make it more palatable to modern audiences. After all, Americans want to believe at least a few of us would resist (why else would the law allow us to own assault rifles?). Also, the novel makes a point about how the South welcomed Nazi rule as a way to perpetuate white supremacy over blacks (the TV show doesn’t dare alienate Southern audiences in that way). I certainly understand the changes and it’s a testament to the show that it finds a way to make these compromises without sacrificing the core story. This is most definitely not a story about a band of rebels overthrowing an empire.
Fortunately, TV series resists the temptation to depict the Nazis and Japanese simply as villains. Not only are the Axis occupiers depicted as well rounded characters, but some of them even come across as likable. Obergruppenführer John Smith (portrayed by Rufus Sewell) could easily have been just another goose-stepping Nazi collaborator, but he has his own tragic backstory and a family that he loves. It’s easy to imagine that, in an alternate reality, he might have become a mayor or police chief. Even Hitler is depicted as a person, not a symbol of evil. There are even a few unsettling moments when you’re not quite sure which side to root for.
Dick’s novel came out in 1962, but The Man in the High Castle feels oddly relevant for our times. At the risk of getting too political, it seems we are grappling with many of the same moral challenges faced by Juliana, Joe, and the other characters in occupied America. Our political leaders score points by proposing to create a database of Muslims in the U.S., labeling Hispanic immigrants as murders and rapists, comparing Syrian refugees to rabid dogs, and praising the use of torture. The Obama administration (and Bush before him) routinely uses drone strikes to assassinate people overseas with no due process and little oversight. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens can no longer have a discussion about politics without demonizing members of the other party.
To be clear, politics can’t be dictated by empathy alone. Leaders need to make tough choices that involve painful tradeoffs. There are solid policy reasons for limiting refugees or using drones, but we should always remember that we’re talking about human beings and that our policy – even our political rhetoric – has real consequences. Labeling Muslims, Hispanics, blacks, gays, unborn fetuses, or the top 1% as “other” makes it that much easier for society to violate their rights. What I find especially troubling is that many Americans are rewarding politicians for targeting members of unpopular minority groups.
To say that we’re becoming more like Nazi Germany isn’t accurate or fair; for many reasons, I think we’re a long ways off from the extremes depicted in The Man in the High Castle. But I do fear America is increasingly losing its collective sense of empathy. Sometimes, science fiction tries to predict the future, but other times it works best by helping us to avoid the future. Hopefully, The Man in the High Castle will make some people think a bit more about what we stand to lose if we remain apathetic.