The Further Nullification of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick fans who love movies are damaged people.  I recall my horror on first seeing Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was promoted as a film version of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and was the first major studio release inspired by what until then was Dick’s long-neglected body of work, but arrived onscreen shorn of Mercerism and the Buster Friendly Show—essentially the heart and soul of his 1968 novel.  The special effects were marvelous and the imagery extraordinary, but I left the theater feeling cheated and betrayed.  Ridley Scott had chewed up a profound piece of science fiction and expectorated a bloated over-produced riff on an Outer Limits episode titled Demon With A Glass Hand.  (Scripted by Harlan Ellison, Demon With A Glass Hand starred Robert Culp and was shot in the Bradbury Building—a Los Angeles landmark—where Ridley Scott filmed much of Blade Runner.  The similarities do not end with choice of location, but for the sake of those who haven’t yet seen it I shall not divulge any more.)

Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) is based on a 1966 short story by Philip K. Dick called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, but is essentially a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger featuring unnumbered shoot-em-up action sequences that bears little resemblance to the story on which it is based.  A later 2012 production boasting the same title is equally remote from its source material.

Blade Runner initially bombed at the box office but later grew in stature—particularly after the release of a director’s cut—while Total Recall was box office gold from the getgo.  Its success assured a flood of scripts inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick that universally lack his spiritualism and his desperately sad humanity, his emphasis on empathy and the transcendent nature of love, and all too often use his stories as springboards for savage violence and eye-catching CGI.  Such “adaptations” include Steven Spielberg’s chase movie Minority Report (2002), a forgettable Ben Affleck flick called Paycheck (2003), an examination of pre-cognition with Nicholas Cage called Next (2007), a playful romance featuring Matt Damon called The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and a number of other features that can collectively be summed up by P.L. Travers, who’d authored Mary Poppins in 1934 and had witnessed its cruel appropriation by Walt Disney: “It was as if they took a sausage, threw away the contents but kept the skin, and filled the skin with their own ideas very far from the original substance.”

One bright spot is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006), which closely adheres to Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel—a dark dystopic journey into madness.  Linklater employs a technique called interpolated rotoscope to present the action from an animated remove and uses a subdivision pocked by neglect as the film’s location, and does actually capture Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish conception.

Now comes Amazon’s “adaptation” of his 1962 novel, The Man In The High Castle, produced by Ridley Scott and developed by Frank Spotznitz.  An alternative history set in 1962, The Man In The High Castle imagines a world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won the Second World War and the former U.S. has been divvied up into the Pacific States, controlled by Japan, the Rocky Mountain States, ostensibly under Japanese control but where actual authority remains ambiguous, and the United States, composed of the midwest and the eastern states, that is firmly under the Nazi Reich.  In its original form, The Man in the High Castle is an intriguing examination of the I-Ching and the role fate plays in deciding human affairs.  By contrast, Frank Spotznitz’s television series is Spy v. Spy with swastikas and rising suns.

Dick’s novel opens at American Artistic Handicrafts, a San Francisco shop, located in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States.  Owned by Robert Childan, the shop specializes in vintage Americana such as old comic books and old Hollywood fan magazines, nineteenth century firearms and Native American art, and all manner of nick-knacks wealthy Japanese find irresistible.  It’s a lucrative niche for Childan and a plot device that betrays Dick’s fascination with what is real and what is fake.  In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ownership of a living animal is of such importance that an entire industry springs up producing fake animals so authentic in appearance that only their owners know they aren’t real.  Those in possession of these fakes such as Rick Deckard (who owns a bogus sheep) subscribe to a service that performs maintenance and repairs on the devices surreptitiously—often under cover of night—so as not to betray their falseness.  Similarly, in The Man in the High Castle a micro-economy has developed around the production of fake Americana for gullible Japanese investors.  Frank Frink, another major character in the novel, works at a small factory that turns out fake nineteenth century firearms.  Childan—unknowingly—has some of these imposters in his inventory.  (Childan doesn’t make an appearance in the television series until Episode Four.)

One of Childan’s best customers is Nobusuke Tagomi, head of the Japanese Trade Mission.  Tagomi routinely casts the I-Ching as a means for determining his approach to evolving circumstances and uses purchases from Childan’s shop as gifts for visiting dignitaries.  The above-mentioned Frank Frink is another habitual petitioner of the venerable oracle.  Frank Frink’s actual name is Frank Fink.  He is Jewish and must remain in the Pacific States for the sake of his survival.  He finds Japanese law harsh but fair, and is horrified by stories he’s heard of life in German-controlled regions where as a Jew he would necessarily be marked for extermination.  He has recently been fired from Wyndam-Matson’s business, the above-mentioned factory that produces fake firearms, and returns there in hopes of recovering his position but learns a new man has been hired in his place.  A co-worker, a shop foreman named Ed McCarthy, approaches him about forming a partnership to produce custom jewelry.  After casting the I-Ching, Frank agrees to throw in with him.

Frank Frink is divorced.  His ex-wife, Juliana, resides in Canon City, Colorado, where she teaches judo.  Juliana is another who routinely casts the I-Ching.  At a local diner one evening she encounters a dark-haired truck driver named Joe Cinnadella and establishes a relationship with him.  Meantime back in San Francisco Frink and McCarthy must raise capital to start up their jewelry business.  McCarthy hits upon underhanded scheme for squeezing dollars out of Wyndam-Matson.  He has Frink enter Childan’s shop and represent himself as an agent for a Japanese admiral who wishes to reward his officers with gifts of antique firearms.  When Childan produces what he claims to be a nineteenth century Colt .44, Frink denounces it as a fake and cancels what would have been a $15,000 deal.  Flabbergasted, Childan calls his wholesaler who in turn notifies Wyndam-Matson that a fake has been discovered.  Wyndam-Matson recognizes that Frink and McCarthy are likely behind this unfortunate exposure and that he could easily have Frink picked up as a Jew, forcing the Japanese authorities to extradite him to the Germans—essentially a death sentence.  But over the short term Wyndam-Matson figures a payment of $2,000 will keep the two miscreants at bay.

Wyndam-Matson’s mistress, Rita, is reading a novel she shows him titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternative history wherein FDR is not assassinated by Joe Zangara (in the actual 1933 incident it was Pushcart Tony Cermak who got rubbed out) and survives to build the U.S. into a muscular military machine that defeats the Axis powers.  Meantime in Canon City Joe Cinnadella is also reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  He shows his copy to Juliana, who notes that its author, Hawthorne Abendsen, lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in a house he jokingly calls the “High Castle.”

Amazon’s version opens with a rendition of Edelweiss rendered just slightly off both in timing and emphasis to transmute the Austrian anthem and Trapp Family anti-Nazi hymn into something dark and menacing, while the backdrop shows images of Mount Rushmore that dissolve into a globe comprehending the dreadful reach of the two Axis powers.  In the television version the Pacific States are the Japanese Pacific States, the central and eastern United States are the Greater Nazi Reich and the Rocky Mountain States are called the Neutral Zone.  Here the action begins in New York City—inside the Reich—where a truck driver named Joe Blake approaches the local head of the resistance and receives instructions to drive a truck carrying highly sensitive cargo to someone in the Neutral Zone.  Shortly after Blake gets his marching orders Nazi storm troopers swarm the resistance members who’d briefed him, while Blake makes a clean getaway in a truck hauling the secret load.  In Dick’s novel no action transpires in German-controlled territory until the very end, and then only briefly; he cagily keeps the Reich at an ominous distance, making it all the more sinister and frightening.

The action then shifts to the Japanese Pacific States where we are introduced to Juliana “Crain” (not Frink) as she practices aikido at a local dojo.  Shortly thereafter she runs into her sister Trudy who tells Juliana that she has found “the reason.”  Later, at night, Juliana encounters Trudy again—this time in an alleyway.  Trudy hands her a carpet bag and tells her to look after it and runs off in a panic.  Juliana watches in horror as Trudy flees around a corner with Japanese troopers in close pursuit.  Juliana hears a gunshot and on reaching the same corner sees the troopers standing around the dead body of her sister.  (In the novel, Trudy doesn’t exist.)  Among the objects Juliana later discovers in her sister’s bag is a bus ticket to Canon City, in the Neutral Zone.  She also finds a reel of 8 mm film.  On the reel are strips of masking tape bearing the legend “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.”  Juliana just happens to have an 8 mm projector on hand and can readily view the film, which shows the collapse of Berlin and the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S Missouri.

With an appropriate bow to Marshall McCluhan, working with film in 1962 was an ungainly business at best (though there was always some kid in class who knew how to thread the projector), and the result was necessarily passive and cool.  This scenario also begs the question: Why would the two great powers that emerged victorious from the Second World War fear a reel of 8 mm film?  A book, by contrast, is easy to conceal—and to carry—and when read is the ultimate hot medium, which is why book burning and book banning has long been a priority for totalitarian systems—and why Dick chose a book as his cypher.  This is hardly the only occasion when Spotznitz not only undermines the intention of the original material but actually defeats his own purpose.

But Spotznitz goes well beyond this.  In the opening episode, after Joe Blake flees the building where resistance members briefed him, those left behind are summarily executed while a high-ranking Nazi officer impassively looks on.  This officer is John Smith, an SS Obergruppenfuhrer whose overriding purpose is to quash the resistance.  Similarly, among those gathered around the body of Trudy Crain in San Francisco is Chief Inspector Kido of the Kempeitai.  Smith and Kido go on to play major roles in Spotznitz’s production.  Neither exists in the novel.

The first episode follows Juliana “Crain” to the Neutral Zone where, en route, a fellow passenger makes off with Trudy’s carpet bag.  Fortunately Juliana secreted the reel of film elsewhere.  Meantime Joe Blake discovers that his cargo is a virtually identical reel of film.  She arrives at Canon City coincidentally with Blake, and the episode concludes with Blake making a call to his control officer back in New York: Obergruppenfuhrer Smith.

It gets worse.  The second episode introduces viewers to Obergruppenfurer Smith’s family including his eldest son, a Nazi Youth.  On his way to work, Smith is ambushed.  (Not even a shadow of these events can be found in the pages of the novel.)  His assailants are called “Semites.”  There are no “Semites” in the original.  In Dick’s world, Jews are Jews—innocent people imperiled by the Reich.  Meantime, back in San Francisco, Frank Frink is arrested for reasons never disclosed to him.  Inspector Kido supervises his interrogation, and also has his sister and her children arrested.  (Frink’s sister and her children are entirely Plotznitz’s creations.)  Kido shows Frink a photograph of his close relatives and informs him that unless he discloses the whereabouts of Juliana “Crain” they shall certainly die.  We see his sister and her children led to a special chamber where the furniture is wrapped in plastic and the door is hermetically sealed.  In the cell where Frank is being held Kido tells him there have been great advances with Cyclon-B—it is now odorless and painless.  You simply go to sleep and never wake up.

One of the major sources of tension in the original novel is the unease felt by the Japanese when dealing with the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis.  When Dick first composed his novel the Rape of Nanking and other horrors the Japanese visited upon those they’d conquered were not widely known.  Back then China was Red China—the hated enemy—and the Japanese were loyal allies.  In his novel Dick makes clear the moral differences between Japanese and Nazi forms of governance, and establishes that such a death chamber could never exist under Japanese rule.

Back in Canon City, Juliana finds work as a waitress in a diner.  While serving her tables she falls into conversation with an older man who tells her about the Bible, and that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a quote from Ecclesiastes.  He tells her a Bible can be found at a used bookstore (Bibles have been banned).  On her break Juliana purchases a copy and as the episode unfolds she arranges to meet this older man later on, believing him to be her sister Trudy’s contact and the proper recipient of the film she carries.  (This older man makes origami, echoing the role Edward James Olmos played in Blade Runner.)  In San Francisco  meetings are held between Japanese officials and representatives of the Reich to discuss the existence of the man in the high castle, the whereabouts of the film marked “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” and the approaching visit of a Japanese crown prince.  When defecating on Dick’s original material, Spotznitz is nothing if not imaginative.

Throughout the novel and to a lesser degree the television series Mr. Tagomi is presented as the moral center of the piece, a man conflicted by his nation’s alliance with Nazi Germany who feels equal disquiet when dealing with members of Japan’s intelligence apparatus.  Time and again Tagomi is shown casting the I-Ching but it is never revealed what purpose this might serve and the hexagrams produced are never disclosed, whereas long passages of the novel are devoted to these revelations and what they portend for the various characters involved.  Casting the I-Ching is the heart and soul of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award winning piece, but in the television series it is no more than a prop that remains unexplained and unreferenced throughout.

In the television series the true identity of the man in the high castle provides grist for endless speculation.  Juliana believes him to be her boss at the diner, resistance member Lemuel Washington, but others remain unconvinced.  The Japanese figure he’s dead or never actually existed while the Nazis believe he’s alive and well and living somewhere in the Neutral Zone.

As things unfold, Frink attempts to assassinate the crown prince but loses his nerve, Juliana returns to San Francisco and finds work with Mr. Tagomi.  The Yakuza even makes an appearance in Spotznitz’s increasingly frayed production, at one point holding hostage a reel of the film labeled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” and later kidnapping Joe Blake and holding him for ransom.  To sum up all the ridiculous twists and turns woven through the ten episodes of The Man in the High Castle would be pointless.  If Spotznitz’s alterations and additions had improved on the original to any degree, I would have a far different opinion of its worth, but while the first two episodes develop real tension and build considerable suspense the project thereafter seriously loses momentum and concludes with a disappointing anticlimax.

Two of Spotznitz’s alterations I find particularly egregious.  In the novel, Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy’s Edfrank Custom Jewelry (which never appears in the television series) produces a line of jewelry McCarthy attempts to sell Childan.  Childan doesn’t buy the pieces outright but offers to sell them on a consignment basis.  Meantime Wyndam-Matson—as payback for exposing his fake firearms—gets word to the Japanese authorities that Frink is a Jew.  Frink is arrested outside his shop.  Meantime Mr. Tagomi succeeds in arranging a meeting between Wegener and retired Japanese General Tedeki wherein Wegener warns them of Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plan to spark war between the two great powers.  The SD at the German Embassy—tipped off to Wegener’s presence there—raids Tagomi’s office.  Tagomi defends himself with an antique nineteenth century revolver—likely a fake—and kills two SD men.  The following day Tagomi, guilt-stricken for having taken two lives, wanders the city until he finds himself at Childan’s shop, where Childan shows Tagomi the new jewelry.  For Childan this is a break from the past.  He’s no longer interested in peddling Americana to wealthy Japanese occupiers and is tired of worrying that items he’s stocked are potential fakes.  Tagomi agrees to buy one but has difficulty perceiving beauty in its modernistic design.  Ultimately he returns to his office and there encounters German Consul Reiss, the chief Reich diplomat in San Francisco.  Reiss wants to paper over the SD attack on Tagomi’s office but Tagomi won’t have it.  Reiss then presents for Tagomi’s pro forma signature documents authorizing the extradition of Frank Frink to the Reich.  Though legally obligated to sign them Tagomi first refuses Reiss’s request, then snatches up the papers and writes across the bottom: “Release. Ranking Trade Mission, S.F. authority. Vide Military Protocol 1947. Tagomi.”  Frank Frink is saved from certain death.  Tagomi’s magnificent act of rebellion is akin to Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler’s theft of a portable typewriter in Henckel von Donnersmarck’s wonderful flick, The Lives of Others (2006).

In the television series, Childan strikes a deal with Frink to fake a medallion once worn by Sitting Bull for sale to a wealthy Japanese couple.  Frink, in need of money, readily agrees.  At this point I wanted to scream.  Edfrank’s new custom jewelry is Childan’s avenue of escape from Japanese oppression and in its own small way an act of rebellion.  It is one thing to punch up a flagging plot line, but it is quite another to completely undermine the intention of an original work.  Further, Tagomi’s far more substantial act of defiance doesn’t even make it to the little screen, nor does the shoot-out in his office.

In the novel Juliana Frink learns dark-haired Joe Cinnadella is actually a blond Nazi assassin who plans to kill Hawthorne Abendsen, the man in the high castle.  The two are in Denver, en route to Cheyenne, when she makes this dreadful discovery.  She cuts Joe’s throat and flees the hotel where they are staying and stops briefly to cast the I-Ching.  Accepting the advice of the oracle, she leaves Denver and drives north to Cheyenne.  The following day she reaches Abendsen’s house, a conventional residence with a child’s tricycle in the driveway.  It is evening and Abendsen is hosting a party.  He makes time for Juliana, who demands to know if the I-Ching had influenced the composition of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  Abendsen admits that every plot twist and evolving scenario was occasioned by casting the I-Ching, and that in a very real sense the oracle itself penned the novel.  Juliana casts the I-Ching to answer her question: Is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy true?  The hexagram she produces is Chung Fu: Inner Truth.  Abendsen’s novel has in fact presented the world as it ought to be.

Episode Ten of the series has Wegener, upon his return to Germany, arranging a private meeting with Adolph Hitler.  (In the novel Hitler has degenerated into a syphilitic vegetable ensconced in a remote sanitarium, and Wegener is picked up by SS thugs at Tempelhoff Airport.)  Spotznitz’s Adolph Hitler resides in a magnificent white castle atop a Bavarian Alp—quite literally, the man in the high castle.  Any connection to the original novel has now been completely obliterated.

Philip K. Dick can no longer defend his work, so the rest of us must step up to the plate.  One way of expressing our displeasure is not to go along, not to rent or to view this abomination, to simply ignore its dreadful existence.  Rumor has it two of Dick’s most important novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said are set to become motion pictures.  Brace yourselves.

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at