Amazon's new television adaptation The Man In the High Castle—part of the streaming service's 2015 pilot season—opens in a conquered New York. The Nazis won World War II, and the American flag now bears a swastika. A few freedom fighters struggle on—we see one in particular brutally tortured and beaten to death—and the police are everywhere. Life in this alternate dystopia is a thing of fear and hardship, as in 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale, or The Hunger Games. The familiar forces of freedom struggle against the familiar totalitarian forces of dystopia, epitomized, in the usual way, by a cruel, sadistic supervillain (here portrayed by Rufus Sewell as SS officer John Smith). If the Nazis had won the war, the TV series warns us, the world would have been much, much worse.
This message, as it happens, is a complete inversion of Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel of the same name, on which the series is based. As such, it betrays the source material’s difficult and conflicted message in the interest of the banal genre default of plucky Americans fighting for freedom against the evil invaders; as Adi Robertson of The Verge suggests, it might as well be Red Dawn.
Superficially, perhaps, the novel isn't all that different. Dick also imagines that the Nazis have won World War II, and the world under the Nazis is certainly horrible enough: The novel mentions several times that after their victory in the war, the Germans set about murdering everyone in Africa. Slavery has been reinstituted in the southern United States (an uncomfortable detail that isn't mentioned in the pilot episode), and American Jews in Nazi-controlled areas have been systematically gassed. One of the Jewish main characters, Frank Frink (née Fink) is arrested on the Japanese-controlled west coast and scheduled for deportation to Germany. Meanwhile, in the TV series, Frink (Rupert Evans) only has a Jewish grandparent, which seems a bizarre alteration.