“I’m writing a very important book,” said sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick to his third wife before penning 1962’s The Man in the High Castle. In truth, Dick had no book. He didn’t even have an outline. So he turned to an unused idea about an alternate reality in which Germany and Japan won WWII and colonized the U.S.
To call High Castle complicated is like saying Caligula saw a few naked buttocks. Through five main characters (and a dozen more supporting), Dick ponders humanity, racism and superstition and poses big questions: Is what we perceive always real? Will knowing the truth free us from our perceptions?
While it may be the most acclaimed of the author’s 40-plus novels (and the only one to win sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Award), it’s no shock that Amazon’s bold, 10-episode series is the book’s first adaptation. (Fox’s fall drama Minority Report is also based on Dick’s work.) “The subject matter is contentious. The plot is difficult to unpack,” points out star Rufus Sewell, who plays American under-Führer John Smith (a character new to Dick’s universe). “While the story is mind-boggling, it’s not a sci-fi extravaganza. It’s much more thoughtful than most crash-bang-wallop science fiction.”
Executive producers David W. Zucker (The Good Wife) and Isa Dick Hackett (the author’s daughter) began shopping around the novel a decade ago. Unable to find an American taker, they approached British filmmaker Ridley Scott, who had successfully turned Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into the seminal 1982 film Blade Runner. In October 2010, BBC announced a four-hour miniseries version with Scott at the helm. And then…nothing. So Zucker and Hackett approached X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz about taking a crack. By February 2013, the project was on Syfy’s slate with Zucker, Hackett, Scott and Spotnitz all attached. Spotnitz had written the first two hours before Syfy chose to opt out.
Then ABC Studios drama chief Morgan Wandell headed to Amazon Studios in October 2013. Hunting for a smart sci-fi project, he called Spotnitz, whom he knew from the 2005 occult drama Night Stalker. “Morgan said, ‘Do you have any scripts you love that you’ve never been able to make?’” Spotnitz recalls. “I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’”
The first installment, which debuted on Amazon this past January, was the most-watched pilot in the site’s history, and the upcoming first season will be their most expensive endeavor. In High Castle’s realm, the Nazis rule the East Coast with a black-gloved fist, while the slightly softer Japanese govern the Western seaboard—with the Rocky Mountain states serving as a neutral zone. One episode could conceivably need at least three different backdrops, and while these sets do represent historical “periods” (the series begins in 1962), Nazi-run Manhattan and Japanese-occupied San Francisco don’t exactly have precedents. “We made all these decisions you wouldn’t normally think about,” Spotnitz says. “What phone utility would exist? What German influence would there be in the clothes? Would they wear hats?”
“It was a huge undertaking,” Wandell admits. “The Man in the High Castle takes a very big investment to do right. And I’m sure traditional networks were nervous about the more controversial aspects. We didn’t have those constraints.” The dicey bits—the subtle racism between characters, the Nazis who aren’t depicted as Satan’s spawns, the kind imperialists, the emotional trauma and the violence—all remain.
In the pilot, Juliana (Alexa Davalos), an American, left her timid live-in boyfriend, Frank (Rupert Evans), in San Francisco in order to bring a banned film depicting an Allied triumph to Canon City, Colorado, on behalf of her murdered sister, who was part of the Resistance. When Episode 2 picks up, Frank, who is secretly Jewish, is hauled off and tortured because of Juliana’s actions. It’s ugly and transformative—and gets worse. “What happens makes him realize he has to stand up and make hard choices,” Evans says. “He becomes a radical, almost an extremist.”
At the same time, Juliana grows closer to mysterious truck driver Joe (Luke Kleintank), who she doesn’t know is carrying the same film for the Resistance…and more. “There’s this unexplainable, kinetic, palpable energy between them,” Kleintank says. “Whether they know the meaning behind it or not, it draws them to each other.”
In San Francisco, SS officer Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) and Japanese minister Mr. Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) conspire to prevent the mass destruction that rises from the power vacuum caused by Hitler’s impending death. And on Long Island, Smith is having a lovely breakfast with his family. “It’s so casual,” Sewell says. “If I did the same scene wearing a pullover and slacks and comfortable pair of slippers rather than a Nazi uniform, it would have an entirely different feel. It’s At Home With the Smiths!”