It often feels like people set up book readers and movie watchers as adversaries, especially when it comes to adaptations of written works to movies (or TV). “Are you mad that they’re turning this into a movie?” “How bad will the movie be?” “If you didn’t read the book, you’re not really a fan! You can possibly appreciate the story!” And as a self-proclaimed reader who loves books, people seem to think that my loyalty will lie with books and I will be offended by any adaptation. But I actually love watching movies or TV versions of books and short stories! I find it fascinating to see how something from one medium is changed to another. What characters have to be cut or combined to make something work on screen? How does a plot need to be condensed or modified to work visually? Rather than take the changes personally, I find the adaptation process to be like watching someone work out a logic problem and I like seeing the solutions people come up with. For example, when I heard they were making a movie of the Cheryl Strayed book Wild, I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to turn that very introspective story into a movie. But the movie did a fabulous job of weaving in flashbacks while using silence to communicate Strayed’s loneliness and solitude on her hike. After I saw the movie Brokeback Mountain I went and read the source material–in that case, the movie was based on a short story, so the screenwriter had to create new material to fill out the story. If I had read the story first, I would not have believed it could be successfully expanded to a two-hour movie, but that movie is beautiful and, I think, very true to the original story. Adaptations don’t always work, of course–Little Women is one of my very favorite books of all time, and pretty much every movie version has serious problems with casting (Winona Ryder as Jo, really?) and issues with the (admittedly) serial plot. But I also once saw a stage production of Little Women that was a failure in almost every way, EXCEPT they totally fixed Professor Bhaer by making him the same age as Jo and writing him as an absent-minded young man. He instantly went from creepy to cute. My point here is, I like comparing different media versions of the same material and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but I don’t always feel like I have to rule that one is better than another.
Having said all that, let’s talk about The Man in the High Castle. In late 2015 Amazon released a ten-episode season of an original drama based on the Philip K. Dick novel. I had never read the book, so I went into the show knowing only that it was an alternate history about a world where the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. was now divided into a West Coast occupied by the Japanese, an East Coast occupied by the Nazis, and an independent, lawless Rocky Mountain region. It’s now the early 1960s and the story follows, among other characters, members of a resistance group that are working to smuggle newsreels that seem to show the Axis losing the war to a mystery “man in the high castle” who provides them anti-Axis intel in return. The show definitely has some issues. The most primary characters–young people caught up in both the resistance and a love triangle–are the dullest on the show. Things move slowly at times, and it is dark. Really dark. Like, there were several times when I thought, “Well, surely they won’t go that far.” But, they’re Nazis! Of course they will go that far! But I really enjoyed the show overall. The world building is excellent–the scenes in San Francisco show all sorts of subtle ways that Japanese culture has been woven into the American city–and Rufus Sewell is chilling as a New York-based Nazi leader. And the newsreels that seem to show the U.S. winning the war raise all sorts of interesting questions that introduce a sci-fi element to the story (Are these fake newsreels? Are they showing our world? Is some sort of time travel happening?). By episode 10, the plot was moving along at a good pace and it ended on a cliffhanger than makes me very eager to check out (the yet-to-be-announced) Season 2.
As I was watching I heard, either online or on podcasts, that the plot of the show branched off from the book very quickly, and that in the book the newsreels were actually books themselves. This kind of change–changing a book to a film so it plays better in a visual medium–is exactly the sort of thing that fascinates me, so I decided to read The Man in the High Castle and see how the book compares. WELL. Look, I know that Philip K. Dick is a highly-regarded giant of science fiction, and I’m sure there are people out there railing about how the TV show completely ruined the book. But as far as I am concerned? DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.
First of all, the plots of the two versions are wildly different, and the characters just barely even line up. The Rufus Sewell character (probably the most compelling on the show) isn’t in the book at all, and most of the other characters bear little resemblance to their TV versions. The plot does involve a mysterious book and a resistance movement, but that’s about it–it feels as if the TV writers took the basic premise of an occupied U.S. and the character names, and then went off and did their own thing. And for the most part, that new thing is more complex, with more moving parts and more people, than the book. The TV show did drop a few things that could have been interesting–in the book the Nazis are in the process of colonizing Mars–but that were presumably too complicated for TV. But overall I found the multiple plot threads of the TV show more twisty and fun. However, none of that is why I am telling you not to read this book. My issue is that the book was horribly, terribly, sexist and racist. Every female character is both stupid and mean, and Dick makes a disturbing number of “dumb, like all women” comments. And there are plenty of cases where the book will use a racial slur, and it’s obviously because that is what a particular Nazi character would say or how a white man living under Japanese occupation would feel. But there were also lots of times where it seemed pretty clear that Dick was using a slur because he himself did not realize it was a slur. It all made me feel icky and I almost gave up on the book entirely because it was so gross.
So, although I generally don’t feel the need to decide whether the book or the movie (or TV show) wins, or to tell people that one version is definitive, in this case I am clear: the TV show is better. The move down the scale of racism and sexism would be all that I needed to make that call, but I actually also thought that the TV show’s expansion of the plot and characters and the visual world building were significantly more interesting than in the book. So, as long as you have a high tolerance for darkness, I would say watch the show, and don’t feel a single bit of guilt about ignoring the book altogether.