‘The Man in the High Castle’ teases alternate history

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I haven’t spent a lot of time on Amazon lately, in great part because I haven’t liked what I’ve heard about the way the retailing and publishing giant has squeezed publishers and authors after years of putting the hurt on independent bookstores. The fact that I didn’t buy any books or music through Amazon this past Christmas – and a few months before that – is decidedly immaterial to Amazon, of course.

I have gone back to Amazon recently however – without breaking out my credit card – to check out two projects from Amazon’s burgeoning original movie/TV production house.

One is “Bosch,” a series based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch crime novels. Another is “The Man in the High Castle,” based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternate history novel.

It’s a testimony to the lasting fascination with World War II that “The Man in the High Castle,” the book and the Amazon pilot I saw, are still so vital.

When the book by Dick – the author of the stories behind classic films like “Blade Runner” – was published in 1962, World War II vets were still strong and vital men and women, the driving force in our society, albeit soon to be supplanted by their children, the generation that came of age in the 1960s. But in 1962, the heroes of World War II and the scars of the war still loomed large.

Dick’s story is set in a world where Japan and Germany defeated an overmatched Great Britain and Russia and an unprepared United States. The US is divided between a Japanese colony on the west coast and a German colony on the east. In between is a rough neutral zone.

The Amazon pilot – which streamlines Dick’s story – tells the story of two people: Juliana, who journeys by bus from San Francisco to Canon City in the neutral zone to complete a mission started by her sister, who is killed by Japanese authorities, and Joe, a young New Yorker who seeks out a dangerous mission for anti-German resistance underground and drives a truck to Canon City.

Each is carrying a newsreel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which seems to show the US and its allies triumphant over the Nazis and Japanese. But that didn’t happen, did it?

The newsreel – a book in Dick’s original novel – is the product of a mysterious figure known as “The Man in the High Castle.” What his role in the story is and what happens to Juliana and Joe are still unknown to Amazon viewers because the creators – including former “X-FIles” producer Frank Spotnitz – have barely scratched the surface of Dick’s book. We’re not even sure if there will be more episodes to follow the Amazon pilot.

The most chilling moment in the pilot is when Joe is stopped by a swastika-wearing sheriff who acknowledges he was a US soldier in the war. “Can’t even remember what we were fighting for now, though.”

Joe notices ashes drifting down around them and asks what they’re from.

The hospital, the sheriff replies. Just the regularly scheduled burning of “cripples and the terminally ill (and other) drags on the state.”

“The Man in the High Castle” is visually stunning, from the opening credits to the newsreel images to the lived-in look of the US under occupation. The look of the series pilot is big-screen-movie-quality.

The characters are intriguing and the story is fine, although I felt like I saw the last-shot twist coming.

Maybe we’ll see where “The Man in the High Castle” takes us.

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