Are you ready to live under Nazi and Japanese occupation? Amazon is adapting Philip K. Dick’s beloved alt-history novel The Man in the High Castle for television, and today at Comic-Con, we found out what to expect from the show’s first season.
The first episode of Man in the High Castle already appeared online months ago—read our review here—and they’re filming the rest of the first season right now. We saw a panel with producers Frank Spotnitz and David Zucker and castmembers Rufus Sewell, Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank and Alexa Davalos. Plus Philip K. Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick-Hackett, and they talked about the major changes from the book, and the major themes of the TV show.
In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the Japanese and Germans have conquered America—but there’s an underground novel about a world where the Axis powers actually lost. In the TV version, though, instead of an underground book, it’s a set of newsreel films of “our” world in which the Allies won the war.
Someone from the audience asked the show’s head writer, Frank Spotnitz, why they changed the book into films. He responded, “That was actually the first thing that popped in my mind when adapting it for television, which was that instead of a book, it should be a film—because it’s a visual medium.” But Spotnitz said that this does raise some questions, because anybody can have a printing press, but making films is harder. At the same time, the films are just a “McGuffin,” said Spotnitz.
In fact, the identity of the “Man in the High Castle,” who creates those films, is “one of the great mysteries of the show,” said Spotnitz. The show starts with the revelation that “there’s another world that’s possible,” and this is connected to the Man in the High Castle. But you won’t get answers to the nature of this other world, and the identity of that Man, any time soon. At the same time, this isn’t a mystery-driven show—it’s all about what it would be like to live in an alternate reality.
Someone asked about one character from the book who’s not in the TV show—antiques dealer Robert Childen. And Spotnitz said that he’s in the following episodes, and in fact is filming right now.
Originally, this show was a four-hour miniseries, and the fourth hour would have ended with us meeting the Man in the High Castle, said Spotnitz. So they’ve already nailed down that answer, and they know where they’re heading.
Producer David Zucker explained that they actually had a deal to make Man in the High Castle for the BBC at one point, and then for Syfy, and both of those deals fell through. And then fatefully, Amazon asked Frank Spotnitz if he could adapt one book or other source material, what would it be—and he said Man in the High Castle. That started the ball rolling, right before the option was due to expire.
Spotnitz, “In part, the book was written as a parable on the Cold War... in our [version], it’s a Cold War between the Nazis and the Japanese.” The Japanese are having a hard time holding on to their empire, while the Germans are being aggressive and adept at expanding. The United States is caught between these two sides in the Cold War.
Spotnitz said which side of the country you’d want to live on—German or Japanese—depends on the color of your skin, your politics, your religion, your sexuality, and so on. On the East side, Nazi policies have become pretty normalized, and white Christian straight people have a “pretty nice” life. “There’s a kind of freedom in fascism,” said Spotnitz. “We don’t usually get to look at that up close.” It’s “unsettling” to look at that up close.
“We Americans are not accustomed to the idea of losing,” said Spotnitz.
Meanwhile, on the West coast, under Japanese rule, there are minorities. But also, because the Japanese grip on power is not as strong, there’s crime and corruption and lawlessness. And in the middle, in the neutral zone, there’s a kind of “Wild West” feeling.
Rupert Evans said he plays a frustrated artist on the West Coast, because modern art was banned and suppressed under the Third Reich. “The world that you’ll see in this TV show is a world where people with ideas are kept locked away,” said Evans. “It’s all about how people live under that kind of totalitarian state.”
Rufus Sewell, who plays “Obergruppenführer” John Smith, who’s a Nazi leader—but also a good father and a regular guy in his private left. “He represents the great majority” of Americans, who “have just normalized. It’s become normal life, under the Reich.” In this world, after the Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on Washington, there was a civil war in the United States over whether to keep fighting—and John Smith was one of the people who wanted to surrended to the Nazis. So he’s a great hero now, said Sewell.
Everybody in this world has “shades of gray,” and even the die-hard Nazi played by Rufus Sewell will have you “rooting for him” at times, said Spotnitz.
Meanwhile, we’ll glimpse very different versions of pop culture—there’s no Elvis and no Beatles. Rock Hudson is starring in a fictional movie called The Punch Bowl, and there’s a Marx Bros. poster with the word “Semites” scrawled across it, showing that the Marx Bros. were banned as Jews. And we see game shows featuring genial Nazis.
Executive producer Ridley Scott “is one of the great visual film-makers of all time, and to have his guidance and insight as to how to approach this world has been invaluable,” said Spotnitz. “He cited many films” that they should refer to, including Blade Runner, but also including Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and other fine art. And they’ve extended that aesthetic as the show has gone on.
One shot in particular owes a lot to Blade Runner—it’s Times Square under Nazi occupation, which they filmed in Seattle, using tracking marks. Spotnitz said they’re going to change that shot in November. They’re making refinements to the shot for the new version of the pilot, which reflect changes in automobile design and the commercial culture under the Nazis—which would have been focused less on corporate growth, and more on agriculture and heavy industry.
“You will find out very slowly what’s happened to the rest of the map” beyond the U.S., Germany and Japan, said Spotnitz. And we won’t leave the U.S. until the end of the first season.
Contact the author at email@example.com.