Critics then and now have characterized Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award-winning “The Man in the High Castle” (1962) as his most straightforward and comprehensible work. This is valid, for his LSD-fueled visions about what is real lost drug-free readers in other novels. His plots were a mess and his characters one-dimensional.
This is why Hollywood has used Dick solely as an “idea” man. The film-makers of both Blade Runner films took only Dick’s theme of “what it means to be human” from his novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and improved on it by transforming the tale into a neo-noir film.
This also happened in less intelligent adaptions such as “Minority Report” and “Total Recall,” films that used Dick’s ideas but tailored them for the box office appeal of Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Like “Blade Runner,” Amazon Prime’s “The Man in the High Castle” is more interested in intellectual ideas than explosions. Just because there is more of Dick to use from the source material doesn’t lessen the series’ achievement.
The series’ creators retained the plot of Dick’s novel, a nightmare world in which America lost World War II and is being controlled by the Nazis on the East Coast and Imperial Japan on the West Coast. Sandwiched in between is a neutral zone situated in the Colorado Rockies.
Season 1 also kept the characters from the novel. There is the spectral “Man in the High Castle,” Hawthorne Abendsen, whose films depicting an alternate reality of the Allies winning World War II propel the plot. He frightens the fascists and inspires their victims. A Japanese businessman, conflicted about his government, discovers a way into another reality via I-Ching. Best of all, there is a Juliana Crane, who is transformed from a character in the novel into the protagonist.
The film-makers strengthened the material by adding compelling characters. John Smith is a thuggish Nazi leader who is also a devoted family man. There is a Japanese secret policeman who is ice cold about his duties. Both are ruthless in their pursuit of Abendsen and his network.
Season 2 ingeniously took the material further. Smith was able to avert a nuclear war with Japan. His fervent Hitler Youth son, who had a genetic disorder, obeyed Reich policy concerning the infirm and surrendered to the doctors to be euthanized.
There seemed to be no other place for the screenwriters to go. Crane found Abendsen and his murdered sister’s doppelganger. Through the Japanese businessman’s example, she knew there was a way out of her reality.
But Season 3 is as remarkable as the previous ones in propelling the material in an imaginative and intelligent direction. The characters are not static. Smith, grieving about his son, is sickened by how the Reich celebrates his child’s sacrifice. His doubts about the creature he is serving grow. He now performs his thuggish actions less from loyalty toward the regime, and more for protecting his family. He fears that his eldest daughter is suffering from the same genetic disorder as her brother and uses his power to keep the doctors at bay.
His wife, who in Seasons 1 and 2 was the epitome of the “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche” homemaker of Nazi ideology, is worse. She is unraveling and self-medicating with alcohol.
Juliana Crane has moved from mere courier of the films to an active armed member of the growing anti-fascist resistance. She uses the films as a recruiting tool for the “resistance” and shoots Nazis.
Equally imaginative is how the film-makers use real-life figures. Heinrich Himmler, now running the show after Hitler’s death, is as homophobic as ever (although the real Himmler for a time tolerated homosexual relationships among SS soldiers, out of the belief that this would strengthen their soldierly bond). Upon discovering a lesbian relationship between a German film-maker and an American gossip columnist, he ships the former back to Germany for “re-education.”
The most ingenious and chilling characterization concerns Josef Mengele, the real-life SS doctor who used concentration camp inmates, particularly twins, for horrific experiments geared toward manufacturing an Aryan race. He is still inflicting scientific horrors on the “lesser races,” but this time around it is to open the door to alternate worlds for the Nazis to conquer.
The series is well-thought-out, and one could argue that the direction the film-makers have taken the material might have been Dick’s direction in sober moments.