What if the Axis Powers had won World War II? It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. Speculative fiction has enjoyed a rich tradition in literature. In particular, the subgenre of alternate history has proved a tantalizing playground for a multitude of writers like Philip Roth and Harry Turtledove who have offered a dozen different versions of worlds that could have been — worlds both intriguing and terrifying all at once. Among the most popular topics is World War II, an event that defined a generation and changed the geopolitical landscape. All speculative writers worth their fancy fountain pen have tried their hand at imagining a different outcome of the conflict, but perhaps none are more beloved or well-known than Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle.”
Thanks to Amazon Studios you can now watch an adaptation of the book in the form of a pilot episode that will leave you wanting more, despite it playing too many of its cards a little early on. It opens in the United States in 1962, but not the one your parents remember. The music may sound the same, the fashions familiar, but a swastika sits proudly on the American flag where the 50 stars should be and Gestapo officers patrol the streets of New York City. What happened?
Germany and Japan won World War II and carved up North America between themselves, right down the middle. The Nazis run the eastern part of the U.S. while Imperial Japan took the west, with the Rocky Mountain states serving as a neutral buffer zone between the two.
Released on Amazon Prime in mid-January, “The Man in the High Castle” plays like a surreal episode of the “Twilight Zone.” This should come as no surprise, since the pilot was written by “X-Files” alum Frank Spotnitz. In this chilling universe, no one bats an eye if political dissidents are shot in the street or social rejects are burned in local crematoria, their ashes cascading in the air like a perverted snowstorm.
Taking a great many liberties with the plot of its source material, the show changes a lot of the interconnected characters and storylines. Overall, these alterations prove to be much more thrilling for a live action drama. You’ve got Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a member of the underground resistance driving across the country with mysterious cargo; Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) who holds a curious film reel (which originally took the form of a novel within the novel in the book) called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which depicts the Allies winning the war, not to mention the fact that her boyfriend has Jewish roots; and Japanese official Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) worried about the next madman to take Hitler’s place. Each new encounter gives us breadcrumbs of information about this alternate setting. A character will mention offhand that Uncle Adolf is suffering from Parkinson’s in his old age, that atomic weapons were used to level Washington or that advanced Nazi technology allows you to fly from New York to San Francisco in under two hours.
Many of the book’s main conflicts are set in place during the one-hour pilot, making you wonder how they can stretch this concept into a full-fledged series. A shocking twist in the final scene, however, made me hopeful for the show’s future. With high production values, it exercises a form of world building that works so successfully in “Game of Thrones;” the content is simply too large for a film adaptation. The title sequence is quite perturbing, set to a lullaby-like rendition of “Edelweiss” that would make Captain von Trapp nervous. It also helps to have Ridley Scott on producing duties, since his adaptation of Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” into “Blade Runner” is now a sci-fi classic.
I really do hope that “The Man in the High Castle” gets picked up as an actual show because it is not only an interesting premise, but it shows the potential for more alternate histories in television and film. Recently, SyFy aired “Ascension,” a miniseries about John F. Kennedy sending Americans into space in 1963. Maybe we’ll even get to see an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s noir “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which was being developed under the Coen Brothers for some time, but nothing has come to fruition. These works are so great because you never how many stories could be told if we just asked ourselves, “What if?”