Americans Under Occupation

The idea of an autocratic regime ruling America has long been a preoccupation of alternate-history enthusiasts and sci-fi authors. With Donald Trump now in office, those fictions suddenly seem all too real. (The Republican National Convention, at which Trump bellowed "I am your voice," and insisted that he alone can fix the nation's problems, was like a scary set piece from a dystopian novel.) In 2015, Amazon began streaming a slick TV adaptation of one of this genre's best books, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Both the book and the show take place in an alternate version of postwar America. A chain of events, from President Roosevelt's assassination to the Germans' atomic bombing of Washington, DC, opened the door for the Japanese and Germans to invade the US during World War II and occupy it afterwards. Life under the Japanese Pacific States and Greater Nazi Reich resembles real-life America, except Jews pray in secret, the bible and music with "negro influence" are banned (at least on the East Coast), and dissidents are routinely tortured or killed.

The show, produced by mega-director Ridley Scott and created by Frank Spotnitz, aims to shock its audience with alarming alt-history iconography: swastikas blazing on Times Square or imprinted on red-white-and-blue flags aloft in Long Island; San Francisco streets with kanji characters on storefront signs. The second season, which was released this past December, continues the Hollywood-like plot of the first. A nuclear war between Germany and Japan looms, and an underground Resistance searches for hope in the subversive films made by a mysterious person known as the "Man in the High Castle." Dick would scarcely recognize the latter storyline: In his novel, there is no Resistance—just quietly desperate people doing their best under totalitarian rule—and his titular character was a novelist.

Despite its timeliness, the show is not the resonant work of political pop art it could have been. Scott and Spotnitz squandered their rich source material, turning it into a story of brave Americans fighting evil forces in moody lighting, a vision that has little in common with Dick's solemn, moving novel. Rather than action-packed scenes of a brave Resistance, the book offers an intimate look at the psychology of Americans under occupation. Dick focused on the characters' everyday interactions and the nervous rationalizations they came up with to understand their place in the new order. But on the show, heroes fall into so many predictable chase scenes and shoot-outs in dark clubs, basement tunnels, and abandoned buildings that we barely have any time to understand what's going on inside their heads.

Dick's book is part of a long tradition of alternate-history novels in which Americans accept their nation's descent into fascism with a smile—or a shrug. The two standout titles in this genre—Sinclair Lewis's 1935 It Can't Happen Here and Philip Roth's2004 The Plot Against America—are narrated by characters that we actually care about, ones with deep motivations and none of the vapid patriotism of the "defiant heroes" in Amazon's Man in the High Castle. In Lewis's book, the reluctant liberal Doremus Jessup, a crotchety editor of a small-town Vermont newspaper, is the foil to an oafish, homebred demagogue, Senator "Buzz" Windrip, who eventually interns Jessup in a concentration camp. In Roth's book, we read about a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy calling his parents "you people" after returning from President Charles Lindbergh's new Jew-to-gentile conversion program on a Kentucky farm. Instead of a chase or shoot-out, Roth's story climaxes with a simple warning from New York City mayor Fiorello La Guarida, soon to be arrested by the FBI for conspiracy, in a Manhattan synagogue: "It can't happen here? My friends, it is happening here."

Unlike these novels, the show's main heroes in the Resistance seem to fight fascism only to satisfy a personal vendetta or out of a sense of nostalgia. Frank Frink, a Jewish factory worker in San Francisco, joins the Resistance after the Kempeitai torture him and gas his family to death, and describes his struggle in the most hackneyed terms: "Someone once told me it takes a lot of effort not to be free," he says. "I kept my head down for so long, I forgot what it feels like to stand up." Frink's girlfriend, Juliana Crain, also joins the Resistance after witnessing the Kempeitai gun down her sister. Listening to rock 'n' roll in a van, gazing out at the morning light reflecting off the Brooklyn Bridge, Crain sits with a Resistance fighter who says that this illegal music is a "reminder of what we're fighting for." But what, exactly, is it a reminder of? Even the most hardened insurgents fail to elaborate what inspired them beyond the fact that they're "on the side against the Japanese" or "for freedom."

The lack of curiosity about the psychology of Americans living under fascism is the most disappointing aspect of the show, especially because such nuanced portraits were a great strength of Dick's novel. The series abandons Dick's patient, brainy narrative about complex characters and never really explores his warning about the ease with which we could adjust to—and justify—a dictatorship. Dick writes about how Mr. Wyndam-Matsom, a boss at a local factory, listens passively as his paramour relates the story of a friend who was interned in a Nazi work camp. When she says she doesn't know how the woman could tolerate waking up at 6:30 AM every morning to marching band music, Wyndam-Matsom defends the Nazi government, saying it "got all those businesses and corporations and factories—everything!—going again."

What we watch on TV may have only a tenuous relationship to how we think and act politically. But this series could have taken a cue from the probing political novel it's based on, and opened the conversation about what motivates an effective resistance movement—much as the films made by the "Man in the High Castle" do for the show's underground fighters. Instead, Scott and Spotnitz opted to make a campy, Nationalism-infused romp, showing shallow characters valiantly fighting to make America great again.

Justin Slaughter is a critic and journalist in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared in Public Books, Guernica, and Talking Points Memo.