What if the Allies lost World War II? What if the Axis powers conquered the United States? And what would the country look like 15 years later?
Those questions open the floodgates to dozens more in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. In the world of High Castle, the United States has been divided into three zones after losing the war: There’s the imposing, totalitarian, German-occupied East called the “Greater Nazi Reich,” a slightly-less-imposing, still-totalitarian, Japanese-held West called the “Japanese Pacific States,” and a neutral zone in the middle.
Executive producer (and The X-Files alum) Frank Spotnitz, who helms the series, spoke to EW about the challenges of transforming the world described by Dick into a visually arresting show that has to depict an alternate history for the U.S. “I watched and re-watched endless documentaries on Hitler and Nazism,” he says. “I had spoken to a number of historians. I asked them to talk about how Hitler could have won the war, what the key turning points, the mistakes he made were, and how they pictured Nazi society would have progressed if they had won.”
The resulting series (the pilot episode is available here) delivers a chilling look at the regions through the eyes of two characters: Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is the closest to being the audience’s proxy; she lives in San Francisco, grew up around Japanese culture, and only becomes ensnared into the larger forces at play after her sister gives her a film reel created by “the man in the high castle” depicting a world in which the Allies won — in other words, our world. Joe (Luke Kleintank), meanwhile, joins the Resistance movement in New York, and travels west on a mysterious mission, with a mysterious purpose of his own. The two meet and may run into trouble, as evidenced in the exclusive first look photo above from the series’ third episode. (The photo below comes from the series’ fifth hour, showing Juliana in far less dire-looking circumstances as she talks to a character named Mr. Eto, played by Richard Ching.)
The series, which counts filmmaker Ridley Scott among its executive producers, will not only explore the alternate world the novel imagined, but also tackle a number of overarching themes. According to Spotnitz, the three questions viewers should ask while watching are: What is it to be human, and how do you remain human in an inhuman world? What is freedom, and what would you do to get it? And finally, for the science-fiction fans, what is real? (If there’s a film reel showing another course of history …)
Ultimately, Spotnitz says, it’s a story that shows just how easily history could have gone differently. “I think that the qualities that led to Nazism in Germany could lead to Nazism anywhere, fascism anywhere,” Spotnitz says. “There’s something unfortunate in the human condition, that we’re vulnerable to that kind of ideology. And I think that’s what’s most chilling about The Man in the High Castle are the scenes that are normal, are everyday, are really all-American, but you can see how it could happen here, too.”
As with many adaptations, Spotnitz has altered certain elements from the book. He added characters to expand the world, including Rufus Sewell’s slippery German officer “John Smith.” He set scenes in New York, which the novel doesn’t visit. Even character backgrounds have changed: In the book, Juliana is estranged from her husband, Frank Frink, a Jewish man living in San Francisco. In the series, Juliana is dating Frank (played by Rupert Evans), a man whose grandfather was Jewish — a detail Spotnitz changed after reflecting on his own family history. (Spotnitz is half-Jewish, and thought about what it would be like to be someone who had Jewish roots, but would still be targeted by Nazi Germany.)
“I grew up in a time when you’re used to happy endings, and I think The Man in the High Castle, the novel, made me realize that there’s nothing inevitable about a happy ending, that things really could go the wrong way. If you want the world to change, it’s up to you,” he explains. “I really just want people to think, to ask, ‘What does it mean to be free? What would you sacrifice to be free?’”
The Man in the High Castle hits Amazon on Nov. 20.