On-screen adaptations of Philip K Dick’s fiction have had mixed fortunes.
Some have been classic (Blade Runner), very good (Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly), okay (The Adjustment Bureau) and downright terrible (Paycheck, Next). But which category does The Man In The High Castle, written by Frank Spotnitz and executive-produced by Ridley Scott, fall into?
Judging by episode 1, ‘The New World’, the answer not just ‘very good’. The world that has been created here is scarily plausible, yet the end result could well be compulsively watchable, if it carries on in this way.
For the uninitiated, The Man In The High Castle sees us in 1962 in a world where the Axis forces won World War II, with predictably dire consequences: the US is divided into areas occupied by the Japanese and Germans, and is a plan where on-street shootings of dissidents are commonplace and the terminally ill and disabled are cremated, their ashes funnelled out across the landscape like a nuclear winter. In short, it’s not a great place.
But it’s the only world they have, and the people living in it get by any way they can. People like Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), who is seemingly comfortable living under Japanese control, learning akido and pushing aside the concerns of her mother – who saw her husband killed during the war – as you would a curmudgeonly, bigoted old grandparent.
Until she gets drawn into delivering a film reel showing a video of a different world – our world – in which the Allies triumphed, she’s just playing a role in this world, like everyone else: her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) tries to conceal his Jewish ancestry and keep a low profile; ‘Joe Blake’ (Luke Kleintank) is a secret SS member who tries to infiltrate the American Resistance movement, all the while working for the sadistic SS leader ‘John Smith’ (Rufus Sewell).
As the episode progresses, these roles unravel, and they’re all drawn into situations they clearly don’t want to be in. It’s easy to draw parallels with the opening episode of Game Of Thrones in this regard: introducing us to the major players, then pulling their worlds apart.
Unlike Game Of Thrones though, The Man In The High Castle is a more subtle beast: introducing us to a world which seems similar to ours, only with deliberate mistakes. Brief mentions of real-life figures like Hollywood actors give credence to this, and draw us in deeper as a result.
At the same time, it doesn’t pull its punches. Nazis have long been go-to cinematic bad guys, and while their American recruits are slightly more ambiguous here, for every decent act (the local sheriff who helps out Blake at a roadside would seem like a perfectly affable fellow, were it not for the swastika on his arm), there’s another of prisoners being summarily executed or beaten to death.
It’s all done so matter-of-factly that it’s hard to look away, even though that’s what you’ll sometimes want to do. It’s haunting to watch, but you’ll continue to do so all the same. Hopefully the next episode will match it.