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Read with ease. This article is spoiler-free.
The prevailing thought, when the book is closed and the adaptation begins, is comparison. When you’ve read and loved the source material, it’s an inescapable feeling. It happens with Harry Potter nerds clutching their wands as they pour over the 500-word text to see what got left out, and older women lusting over every horribly-written word of Fifty Shades of Grey that made it into the film.
Yet what happens when the source material, while polarizing and stimulating, is too introspective for screen? Such is the case with Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the small-screen adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel of the same name. Fans didn’t seem to mind back in January when the pilot episode was breaking viewing records and created the buzz worthy of a full season order. Now that all 10 episodes are available to stream, fans of late sci-fi grandmaster are finding a clear disconnect between the text and its television translation.
Entertainment-wise, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is living up to the promise, even for PDK diehards. Adaptation-wise, the television version is a big departure from the original text. Salon interviewed David Gill, a literature professor and Phillip K. Dick expert, about the similarities and differences between Dick’s work and the television adaptation from Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, Hunted) and Ridley Scott’s production company, and for Gill there is one key fundamental difference:
There’s this subtle notion in the novel that the Nazi victory has completely paralyzed the American dream and these people are all struggling to find a new moral compass to guide their lives by. In this, the American Dream has been subverted — so what we’re going to see in the show is like an American Revolution where they rise against their Nazi oppressors. That’s interesting. Its own kind of cool idea… But to suggest that that’s an outgrowth of the novel feels disingenuous.
Essentially, the framework is borrowed, but what sits inside is a story that stands on its own. Turning a novel rich on ideas but short on action into a fully fleshed out 10 hours was the biggest barrier to entry when Spotnitz sat down to pen the pilot, but ultimately it could be the creative gift that opens High Castle to a new world of storytelling potential.
“I think my biggest difficulty was at the very beginning, recognizing that I would have to add characters and plot that wasn’t in the novel in order to turn it into a television series,” Spotnitz told Den of Geek.
“My fear was that I couldn’t do that without doing damage to the narrative, so I tried very hard to do it in a way that was respectful to the novel and just kind of gave more space to the themes and ideas that he had established.”
While most reviews remained positive and some were mixed (almost all were based on the first six of the 10 season one episodes), there’s a clear curiosity, from an optical and contextual place, to explore how the new world order changed life around the planet. Spotnitz is using the seeds planted by the character-driven nature of Dick’s novel to grow his take on the material outward.
“I think when I originally started it was 3-5 years at the most, but now I find I’m thinking the more you think about this show, it’s the whole world,” Spotnitz told us in October at New York Comic Con. “I can go anywhere, if they give me the money.” He added that he already knows where series ends and what’s going to happen to Juliana.
In crafting season one, Spotnitz consulted with historians, spending time researching East Germany and what a Nazi society would look like. When it comes to creating a world outside of the Japanese Pacific States and the Third Reich, he can afford to play the long game, as he did helping weaver together eight seasons of mythology arc on The X-Files. The first ten episodes of High Castle take place over 14 days, and may only be the beginning of the series’ world building.
“There are glimpses of what’s going on with the rest of the planet in the first season,” Spotnitz said. “There are so many issues to explore and it is science fiction so the reason to tell the story is to reflect back on the world we live in right now.”
Borrowing characters from the novel and creating new ones, Amazon’s High Castle is part espionage thriller, part sci-fi exploration, and wholey a trippy reality of the Axis powers winning World War II. It all makes for a visually jarring period piece. Lost in that, as The Atlantic suggested after the pilot dropped, is Dick’s conflicted message and the internal struggle of characters to cope with a world that’s more often colored gray than black and white. Actress Alexa Davalos, who plays Juliana, says it takes time for the themes PKD presents in the novel to be fully realized.
“It builds these pieces in from the book slowly,” Davalos told us back in July, when production was halfway complete. “Frank [Spotnitz] has been very particular about seeing this as a marathon, not a spirit. Like you’re getting a little tiny taste as you go.”