Alternate realities have always been fascinating for viewers and readers everywhere. The world explored in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, however, just might be one of the most unsettling alternate realities of them all. The world of High Castle is a world where the Axis won World War II, finding the German Third Reich and Japanese Empire in control of the United States decades later in the 1960s.
The novel itself was a massive success and remains a cult classic to this day. But Amazon elevated the beloved dystopian novel to an entire new level in the form of its television series adaptation of the same name. With its first episode released in 2015, the series has so far aired three gripping seasons, with a fourth and final season expected in the fall of 2019. But as with many book to screen adaptations, Amazon made quite a few changes to the narrative of the novel - and some of them worked far better than others.
10 Worked: Making Hawthorne Abendsen a more significant character
Hawthorne Abendsen had a major role in the series, long before he was ever actually introduced. He is, after all, the man in the High Castle himself. The novel features the character of Abendsen, a reclusive author who somehow holds the key to the realities of the world and of World War II. But Abendsen does not appear until the final act of the novel.
High Castle quickly introduces Abendsen at the start of the series' second season; and long before he arrives, his influence is felt in the form of his secretly disseminated films. With the stellar casting of the actor Stephen Root in the role, Abendsen has far more weight on screen than he ever does on paper, and forms a meaningful relationship with the series' central character, Juliana Crain.
9 Didn't: Trying to make Joe a more important character
In a novel filled with dystopian realities and shocking turns of events, character development is occasionally billed as secondary in importance to the art of world building. In Dick's High Castle novel, the character of Joe Cinnadella is a walking cliche, who turns out to be a shady figure and an assassin and is quickly dispatched of once his true murderous nature is revealed.
In Amazon's High Castle, however, Joe Blake is allowed to be a more emotionally conflicted character, as the series spends far too much time trying to sympathize an almost robotic character through boring backstory and pointless relationships. Joe's character essentially functions as the human equivalent of a commercial break in the series; his exit from the series early in season three was one of the best choices the show ever made.
8 Worked: Greater representation of diverse populations
In a world controlled by the Axis powers, it's not exactly easy to be a member of a diverse community that isn't Japanese. However, that doesn't stop the series from exploring various diverse groups in far greater detail than the novel ever did. From day one, Rick Worthy's Lemuel Washington is a major player, and season four promises to incorporate more African American activists.
Early seasons also depicted the plight of disabled individuals in a world determined to promote genetic perfection. Similarly, season three prominently featured the lesbian and gay subcultures of men and women trying to live their lives in the face of ultimate persecution.
7 Didn't: Decreasing the role of the I Ching
The I Ching is an ancient form of divination that arises from Chinese origins, but in the world of the Amazon High Castle series, the text is most frequently referred to by the sage Japanese trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi. Tagomi refers frequently to the I Ching as his guidepost through life, and through his knowledge of the I Ching, Tagomi is even able to travel between realms, learning the true world and living in multiple universes.
In Dick's novel, however, the I Ching is revealed to have a much more significant role. It's not just the wise old Tagomi who utilizes the divination text: it's revealed that Hawthorne Abendsen himself made use of the I Ching in order to access the true results of World War II, and write his world-changing novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
6 Worked: Changing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy from a book to a series of films
In The Man in the High Castle novel, the first seeds of doubt regarding the fate of World War II and the existence of the novel's world are planted as a result of Hawthorne Abendsen's secret cult novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It makes sense for information to be spread in the written word, when Dick's medium itself was the written word.
Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Amazon changed The Grasshopper Lies Heavy from a novel to a series of film reels. In the form of film, the vivid and iconic imagery of World War II and the Allies victory is utterly emotionally compelling for the characters and viewers alike, powerfully visually communicating the need for the Resistance to fight against this regime.
5 Didn't: Increasing the prevalence of science fiction elements
Alternate realities are the bread and butter of this work. Without the notion of an other world, there are no stakes worth fighting for in this series, since the characters would otherwise feel trapped within their world. Having characters like Tagomi be able to travel from realm to realm provided an initially deeply emotional storyline.
But the third season decided to double down on the inclusion of multiple realities, and absurd science fiction grade technologies were introduced as a result. The inclusion of increased science fiction elements made the otherwise strong third season considerably weaker, as far too much time was wasted on trying to explain and hand-wave away scientific impossibilities.
4 Worked: Introducing the character of John Smith
It's virtually impossible to read anything about Amazon's The Man in the High Castle without it turning into a laudatory analysis of Rufus Sewell's tremendously complex character of John Smith. A former American soldier, Smith conformed to the Nazi ideology after the Axis victory and worked his way up through the regime. He has been personally affected by his decisions to conform, losing his disabled son, and the rest of his family soon afterward.
He is a tremendously complex and conflicted character, masterfully acted by Sewell from day one. And this character, arguably the strongest in the entire series, is entirely a creation of the Amazon series. It's hard, if not outright impossible, to imagine the series without Smith at this point.
3 Didn't: Introducing the Lebensborn
As part of the series' misplaced desire to explore Joe's lackluster character in greater detail, the second season spent a good deal of time on the concept of the Lebensborn. These children were deliberately conceived in order to produce genetically perfect members of the succeeding race, and were monitored and observed back in Germany.
Joe, of course, was one of these such births, and he finds other members of this class of citizens in his opulent, self-indulgent adventures through drugs and wealth in Germany. His fraught relationship with his absentee father ultimately takes up far too much screentime, too, and far too much exposition rather than plot progression.
2 Worked: Making Juliana the main character
The Man in the High Castle is, in many ways, an ensemble series. So, too, is Dick's novel. But for the most part, the novel focuses on characters such as Robert Childan - a secondary, if not tertiary character in the Amazon series - and Nobusuke Tagomi, a secondary main character in the Amazon series.
But Amazon was correct in shifting the overall focus of the narrative to the incredibly strong and fiercely independent Juliana Crain, played to badass perfection by Alexa Davalos. Juliana's story of loss and growth and self-preservation has provided some of the series' most riveting and deeply emotional moments. To focus the series around any other character would never have worked as well.
1 Didn't: Killing Frank Frink
In The Man in the High Castle novel, Nobusuke Tagomi saves the life of Frank Frink, a man he has never met, because he is moved by Frink's artistry and the emotionality that his work contains. Frank is Jewish and, as such, lives essentially on the run, trading in antiquities and weaponry, but having a secret passion for art. He is an important character, in both the series and the novel, and cheats death on many occasions.
But in the third season, the Amazon series made the mistake of ending Frank's story once and for all. More than most of the other supporting characters, Frank underwent considerable personal growth and heroic journeys, proving time and again that he had become one of the most valuable and most selfless characters in the series.