The Man in the High Castle Book vs. Movie Showdown

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.

 

 

How To Cook a Wolf

I can’t remember why I requested How to Cook a Wolf from the library. It must have been recommended online somewhere and I’m sure that the kick-ass title caught my eye, but by the time it came around on my library holds list all I could remember is that it was about cooking during World War II. And I guess you could describe it that way, but that summary really does a disservice to an entertaining, funny, and thoughtful book. No interest in cooking or history is required here–the writing is enough.

MFK Fisher was one of America’s premier food writers (and was also, based on the portrait on the front of the edition I read, a stone fox) was published in 1942, right as food rationing was kicking in, in order to offer readers advice about how to make the best of their meals during the war years. However, she never mentions the war directly, talking instead about how cooks can work to keep away the wolf of poverty, always sniffing at the door. As a result, the book has a timeless feel–she could be talking about about any hard times that stretch to the kitchen, and a lot of her suggestions fit remarkably well into out post-recession world. Especially since the book is not so much about the specific how-to-cook-things instructions, but is more about a philosophy or a way of approaching food that is frugal and reasonable, but also hopeful. So her chapters are called things like How to Rise Up Like New Bread, How to Be Cheerful Though Starving, and How to Comfort Sorrow.

There are recipes involved here and you could definitely cook from this book, although I suspect that the dishes Fisher describes are made for the palates of a previous generation (she wants you to add tomato juice to A LOT of things that I don’t think should have tomato juice anywhere near them). But even when she is talking about specific dishes, her writing reminds you that food is not just about the ingredients, but that it speaks to how we feel about ourselves and about life. For example, before offering her minestrone recipe, she says, “Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.” And some of the recipes sounded pretty good–I was tempted by something she recalled from her childhood as War Cake, and at least one blogger out there made this with great success.

The other awesome thing about the edition of the book I read is that it was a re-release from the 1950s, and Fisher had gone back through and added notes throughout the book either agreeing with her original statements or offering an updated perspective. Here’s an example from the How Not To Boil an Egg chapter:

“Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.

Until then you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly {The egg may not be bothered, but nine years and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too glibly.} from the hen.”

I think I would have liked having cocktails with her. Anyway, it’s a quick read and it’s quite funny, while also reminding the reader how different things were not all that long ago, and that there are likely still tough times to weather ahead. Also, if you would like the read a sexist but otherwise entertaining original 1942 review of How to Cook a Wolf from the New York Times, you can find that here.


Kinsey’s Three Word Review:
Wonderful historical snapshot.

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For more great food writing, you can check out Julia Child (obviously and forever) or Ruth Reichl. But if you’d like to read some fiction of the era with a similar voice, try the Mitfords or Barbara Pym.

Code Name Verity

I’ve been home sick from work for a couple of days now, and while I am tired of coughing and sick of my couch, I did get a chance to finish an AMAZING book: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

This WWII story is about a young, female British intelligence agent who is captured in Occupied France while on a mission, and is writing her confession for her Gestapo captors. But telling her story also involves describing her friendship with a female pilot, so while it’s a war novel, there’s also this lovely thread of friendship running through it. I’m a sucker for WWII stories and this one is clearly impeccably researched. It’s also really cleverly put together–things are not the way they may appear on the surface of the story, which is completely appropriate for a tale told by intelligence officers. As I was reading, I had a sense that something else was going on, but was still surprised by how things came together at the end. It was difficult to read, at times, but so well constructed. After Eleanor and Park, this was the best thing I’ve read this year.

One note: my library classified this as YA, but I found it pretty disturbingly violent. Realistically violent, not gratuitously so, but still. I would call this a book for adults or maybe older teens.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Harrowing, heart-breaking, and gripping.

You might also like: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, or How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, or Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy