Amazon's The Man in the High Castle is not a great adaptation. But then, it isn't really an adaptation at all so much as a full-body genre transplant, just like every other Philip K. Dick adaptation, except instead of triple-breasted prostitutes and Vangelis scores you get the dour and repetitive intrigues of the world's worst resistance cell. Still, it got me to reread the novel for the first time in 25 years, so I guess that's something.
I had forgotten how much I loved this book, how much of an influence it had on me at an age when we are most primed to be influenced. (It's possible this was the first PKD novel I ever read, something I probably owe to Michael Bishop's The Secret Ascension.) And I had forgotten all about my favorite Philip K. Dick character, Rexford Tugwell.
At the time, the concept of an alternate history still held a fair amount of novelty for me. (This is something the Amazon adaptation absolutely depends on, as it brings little else to the table.) The idea of an alternate history that tried to imagine our own world in a fiction inside the fiction was mind-blowing. That novelty is gone now, too—twenty-five years of pop-cultural postmodernism has seen to that quite nicely—but the novel still works, in large part because Dick recognized that his characters couldn't possibly get it right.
They only know what they know, and their efforts to imagine a better world are bounded by all that they don't know. Their lives were shaped by FDR's assassination, and even if they can perceive his absence they still can't imagine what could fill it. Since it was inconceivable that any president would exceed Washington's self-imposed two-term limit, Philip K. Dick (sorry, "Hawthorne Abendsen") had to invent a successor. But surely it was Dick's boundless imagination that came up with the delightfully improbable name of Rexford Tugwell, a caricature of WASPish benevolence that could only exist in a fantasy within a fantasy.
I read this book in my senior year of high school. It says something about our educational system that I had no idea Rexford Tugwell was not only a real person, but the founder of the town my high school was located in. Since this was also the town I grew up in, that should suggest something about my own reading too.
The Man in the High Castle was an important step forward in that reading, a revelation that genre fiction didn't have to revolve around plot and action; Philip K. Dick could use the merest trappings of science fiction to hold a distorted mirror up to the apocalyptic polarities of the Cold War. But the book endures because it presses even farther than that to tell a story about how we make art and find meaning, how we try to see beyond the limits of our knowledge to understand the world. Naturally, this is what Amazon jettisoned in favor of plot and action.
Hawthorne Abendsen is missing from Amazon's Man in the High Castle. So is Rexford Tugwell. They skipped the best part.