What if the Nazis and the Axis powers had won World War II? What if they’d conquered the United States? And what if, after nearly two decades of occupation, patriotism meant saluting the swastika or the rising sun instead of the Stars and Stripes?
What would a fascist America look like?
Like Amazon’s chilling new thriller The Man in the High Castle, it turns out. In the world of High Castle, mere hints of treason are punishable by death, disappearances aren’t out of the ordinary, and newspapers, films, and even game shows are immersed in propaganda. That’s because the series, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, begins in 1962, and the country has been divided into three zones: the German-occupied East called the Greater Nazi Reich, the Japanese-held West called the Japanese Pacific States, and a neutral zone between them. Within this imposing setting, three main characters become caught in the German-Japanese-American tensions. One is Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a seemingly ordinary New Yorker who joins the underground resistance movement and heads west on a mysterious mission in the neutral zone. Over in the West, the Japanese official Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is dealing with spies to keep the growing Cold War-like tensions between Germany and Japan in check. And then there’s Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a woman who tries to live the best life she can under Japanese rule in San Francisco until her half sister, working with the Resistance, gives her a newsreel created by “The Man in the High Castle.” The film shows the Allies winning the war — footage that suggests that either the Axis powers lied and they didn’t win, or there’s something larger at play: an alternate-world reality, or an unknown matter that hints at science fiction.
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Got all that? With such a tricky plot, it’s no wonder it took more than 30 years for Dick’s story to make the trip from page to screen. The author first put the idea into executive producer Ridley Scott’s head in the early ’80s, back when Scott was directing Blade Runner, the film adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Scott invited Dick to see the opening shots of futuristic Los Angeles, but when Dick watched the footage, he asked if Scott had adapted the wrong book.
“He said, ‘Have you read The Man in the High Castle?’ And I said I hadn’t,” Scott says. “He said, ‘Good lord, this seems to be very derived from High Castle.’ ”
Dick had a point. That novel shared characteristics with what Scott had envisioned for Blade Runner, from the totalitarian setting to the city streets drenched in glaring neon signs. Scott decided to take on High Castle, but it took years before the adaptation finally found a home — and a showrunner in Frank Spotnitz. Yet despite his experience writing for The X-Files, Spotnitz struggled to fit everything into an hour-long drama. “I was afraid to touch it,” he admits. “I was like, ‘I love this book, but it’s not a TV show. What am I going to do?’ ”
His answer: Deviate from the book. He’s cut scenes and characters and added others, including a mysterious German officer (Rufus Sewell). “We depart from the novel, but we only did it to try to be more faithful to the ideas, to try and find ways to dramatize them more clearly,” Spotnitz explains.
The success of adapting High Castle also hinged on whether the series’ producers could build the ominous world Dick had envisioned while making it seem real. They did. A glimpse at an occupied U.S.A. is both chilling and breathtaking: The
opening credits, set to “Edelweiss,” show war footage of the Allied troops losing, as projected onto Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. And nearly every shot is steeped in German and Japanese symbols. Swastikas can be seen on license plates, flags, and pay phones; the rising sun decorates billboards, banners, and uniforms.
“It’s a dark world, because obviously, the fascist forces have won,” Spotnitz says. “But it’s not without hope.” Because in the end, even alternate histories can be changed.
The Man in the High Castle begins streaming on Amazon on Friday.