The Man in the High Castle – by Philip K. Dick

It’s not often that I enjoy a movie version of a story better than the book. But this was one of those rare cases. I recently watched Amazon Prime’s mini-series of The Man in the High Castle, and found it to be absolutely riveting. This alternate history world—imagining what the world would have been like if the Axis powers had won World War II—depicts a version of 1960s America divided up between German and Japanese rule, with a narrow strip of neutral area in the Rocky Mountains. It’s an alternate history that is both extremely disturbing and difficult to look away from. The action and the acting in the mini-series were intense and moving. I was so taken by the mini-series that I felt I had to read the book.

man in the high castleBut I found the book to be disappointing. The premise was the same—America after the loss of WWII—but the plot was almost entirely different. And almost entirely lacking. The mini-series had the sense of intensity and purpose that’s often found in stories about the French resistance. The characters in the book, on the other hand, seemed driven down, accepting of their fate. The mini-series involves almost constant, rising action. The book plods, the characterization and set-up spanning most of the book and the action suddenly (and rather shockingly) arriving in the last quarter of the book.

In most instances of books made into movies (or TV shows), I find that the medium of a book offers much more of a scope for getting to know the characters. But in this book, the characters remained strangers to me. Perhaps they suffered in comparison with the impeccable acting in the mini-series. Yet the book seemed purposefully ambiguous and cryptic—in its presentation of both the characters and the plot. Ambiguity doesn’t bother me if it’s well executed. I can embrace metaphor and ambiguity in Faulkner or Proust. But this ambiguity seemed to be cryptic for its own sake, and seemed to interfere in the execution of the story.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed. The descriptions of the integration of Japanese and American culture were intriguing–integration even to the level of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics seeping into the existence of the average 1960s American. There’s more room in the book version for an exploration of the historical detail of this alternate world—the details about the war, the assassination of FDR, the fall of Russia—I was fascinated to learn more about this alternate timeline. Even the author’s attempt to express the linguistic differences that might occur in American English due to occupation by a culture that learned English as a second language was interesting—if annoying at times to read.

Despite these aspects, I couldn’t get past the purposefully cryptic style and the plodding pace. This alternate history is an intriguing idea, but I’d suggest sticking to the mini-series.

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