Having spent a number of years in development at the BBC and then the Syfy channel, Scot Free Films’ adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Hugo Award winning novel finally arrived earlier this year as a pilot with Amazon Studios. It quickly became the video-on-demand service’s most requested production, partly thanks to the involvement of Ridley Scott (there’s a lovely visual reference to Blade Runner towards the end of the episode), but mostly due to its zeitgeist surfing themes. If ever there was a time to adapt Dick’s alternative history of an America that lost World War II, that time is now.
Written in the early 1960s, The Man in the High Castle had already caught the wind of Cold War detente that was prevailing at the time, albeit enhanced with the considerable soupcon of Eastern philosophy that infused much of Dick’s work – in advance of the Love Revolution that arrived later in the decade. The current fashion for period dramas set in the early 20th century brings to this adaptation a hint of Prohibition Era politics that’s an ideal fit for its subject matter, a story set in an America that is now divided between Japanese Rule in the West, and Nazi Occupation in the East. Frank Spotnitz’ screenplay together with David Semel’s direction perfectly evokes the sense of a country whose world dominance had never really had time to evolve before it was stolen away again, and extrapolating from the novel there are a multitude of offhand references to the incidents that brought this situation about, and that colour in the back-story in a manner that avoids the kind of clunky exposition that would normally afflict such a story.
Spotnitz has streamlined the plot considerably, such that we are primarily now following the trajectory of two characters; Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is a San Franciscan who has embraced the Oriental influence on the city, but when her relationship with a half-sister comes to an abrupt end she falls almost unwittingly into fulfilling her sibling’s mission for the resistance. Crain’s partner Frank Fink (Rupert Evans) is a none too subtle representation of the way the new regime is stifling people’s expression, and being a quarter Jewish also symbolises the fragile accord that exists between the two occupying nations – an underlying theme throughout the pilot that will no doubt become fully-fledged in the episodes that follow. Meanwhile at the other end of the country in New York, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) enters into a mission of his own for the resistance, transporting an illicit film to the headquarters of the resistance in the neutral zone that divides the nation around the Rocky Mountain states. Reimagining the MacGuffin, a resistance work called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy distributed by the eponymous Man in the High Castle, as a series of newsreel films rather than a banned novel, posits this adaptation firmly in a metaphorically post-WikiLeaks, internet world.
The New World is essentially an exercise in bringing together the pieces that will make up the story for the rest of the series, and the twist that the episode finishes on ensures that The Man in the High Castle is going to be as complex in its characterisation as its politics and history are; all credit to the producers for not compromising on the kind of vision Philip K Dick would no doubt have had for a televised version of perhaps his most lauded work.
The extended running time afforded to productions intended for online consumption, avoiding the strict limits imposed by commercial considerations, gives The New World the opportunity to tell its story in a more languid fashion that really suits the material – and together with the unassuming music score and unfussy camerawork, Amazon Studios have allowed Spotnitz and Semel to fully immerse their audience in this alternative world, but in a relatively simple manner that won’t be off-putting to more casual viewers. It’s a combination of period, politics and low-key fantasy that gave the pilot an overwhelmingly popular reception upon its release, and that can only promise well for the series to follow.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE 1: THE NEW WORLD / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: DAVID SEMEL / SCREENPLAY: FRANK SPOTNITZ / STARRING: ALEXA DAVALOS, RUPERT EVANS, LUKE KLEINTANK, RUFUS SEWELL / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW (FULL SERIES NOVEMBER 20TH)