Amazon's The Man in the High Castle, an alternate-history tale of a world where the Axis powers won World War II and the US is occupied by the Germans and Japanese, is sometimes confounding and sometimes exhilarating. Based on a slim but powerful novel by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, the series ultimately becomes a potent story about how to cope with living in an unjust world.
It also possesses an incredible level of detail. Every single element feels carefully thought out and created. Much of that is thanks to showrunner Frank Spotnitz, an X-Files veteran who chose to skew away from making a sci-fi romp and instead push to consider questions of how a Nazi-occupied America would look both similar to and different from our own.
Now that a couple of weeks have passed since the series launched on November 20, it seemed time to talk with Spotnitz about adapting the novel into a TV show, the essential humanity of evil, and the show's controversial marketing campaign.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
On adaptation: "I didn't want to change it in a way that would do violence to the novel"
The Man in the High Castle is a classic novel, but it's rather short. It might even be hard to turn into a two-hour film. How did you approach the challenge of adapting it into something that could run for season after season?
With great trepidation. It's a classic American novel beloved by a lot of people, and I realized pretty quickly I was going to have to change it. But I didn't want to change it in a way that would do violence to the novel or upset people who love the book. I tried to build out the world of the novel in ways that I thought were consistent with the themes.
If you've read the book, you know some of the changes: making [the characters' window into a reality where the Allies won World War II] a film instead of a book, adding antagonists like the John Smith character in New York and Inspector Kido in San Francisco, changing [the relationship of central couple Juliana and Frank] so that they're still together, things like that. Once I'd done it, I realized that the hardest part was building the door into the TV series. Once I had entered that world, it opened up these storytelling landscapes that I hadn't anticipated originally, because you've literally got this entire alternate world in which to tell stories.
The show is very interested in exploring the humanity of Nazis, but you're careful to also underline the gravity of its world. Frank's sister and her family are gassed, for instance. How did you go about reminding the audience of the terrible things going on, even if most of people who live in this alternate reality are willfully ignorant or completely unaware?
That's one of the most important aspects of the show for me. Fascism is evil and terrible, and I want to show the consequences of a hate-filled ideology and people who are willing to do terrible things because they're convinced those things are right. At the same time, I want to show that it's not just people with funny accents who can do terrible things.
My feeling is that Nazis have become the perfect Hollywood bad guys over the years, so much so that we don't even see them anymore. They're just cartoon characters essentially, and I wanted to undo that. You have such a great opportunity in this series because most of the Nazis, in season one anyway, have American accents. Suddenly it becomes that impulse in all of us to embrace intolerance, or hate, or absolutism.
Some of my favorite scenes in the show are ones that are so much like our world, like the state trooper [stopping a character] in episode one, or all of episode six, with the VA Day celebration at Smith's house. It's so close to our culture, and you have to think about why it's different. You have to think about what our values are that make us different from the people you're seeing in the series.
The Man in the High Castle has come under fire for its marketing campaign. I realize you don't do the marketing, but how did you and Amazon balance the question of selling this show but also conveying how it's about some very serious topics?
I kept saying to them, "I have worked very, very hard in the TV series to not offend people." Not because I'm afraid of upsetting people, but I'd rather create light than heat. If you just piss people off and polarize them, they're not going to hear what you're trying to say.
By and large, I think [Amazon] did a really good job. People know about the show, and they did an extraordinary job with the marketing. But it's not surprising to me that with the subject matter this difficult, they might have a misstep. When I saw that subway thing [seats in New York subway trains emblazoned with Nazi symbols], I was just sad. I knew it was going to upset people, and that's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to get people to think.
The first article I read [about the controversy] quoted the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, and I thought his criticism was really fair and balanced. He just said, "You can't take these things out of context." If there's a context you can understand, then that's fine, but in that instance, plastering the seats with the [Nazi] flag, even though they had posters all over the subway car, it was slightly off. That was unfortunate.
On themes: "It's not inevitable that the good guys win"
The show really plays around with how not different this world is from ours. How did you decide how to differentiate between Nazi- and Japanese-occupied America and the America we know from our own history?
There's three palettes, if you will, in season one — the Nazi side, the neutral zone, and the San Francisco [Japanese] side. The ways in which life is the same [as our reality] are different in all three of those zones. I am influenced by the time I spent in Europe for the last five years, particularly the many times I've been in Germany and Berlin.
I visited the Stasi Prison in East Germany, which is a really chilling, horrible place. I was with a woman from the Berlin Film Commission who was taking me around, and after we took the tour together she said, "I grew up in East Germany, and I didn't know these things were happening. Obviously, it's horrible that they were happening, but if I'm really honest with you, I still miss it, because I felt really safe there. I knew all my neighbors. Everyone had a job. There was always bread on the shelves. You didn't have seven types of ketchup, you only had two, but you never need seven types of ketchup." It was so surprising to me. We think of these places like the Soviet Union or East Germany and just think everybody is miserable all the time. In some ways, yes, but in some ways, no. In some ways, life just goes on.
That was an important insight to bring to the show. There's a lot of values that the extreme right has, and the extreme left as well, that aren't that different from what you would see in one of these totalitarian states. To me, that's the really interesting thing. What's the difference? It would be very easy for me to draw a caricature of Nazi society, and everybody would go, "Yeah, well, that's wrong." But if you make it so close to the world we live in, it forces you to think about, what do you stand for? What does our country stand for? What are our values compared with theirs?
That's something that we need to do, that each generation needs to do. You need to be mindful and aware of what it is your country is supposed to be, because if you aren't, it will not be that. It's not inevitable. That was the big thing that shocked me about the book when I first read it. It's not inevitable that the good guys win. You can't count on that. It's not automatic. If you want a just world, you'd better fight for it.
The Man in the High Castle's reality has its own Cold War and even its own version of the JFK assassination. Do you think the show is saying that history is, in some ways, immutable?
One of the ideas from the book is that there's an infinite number of realities, but history does tend to follow certain paths. If you or I could see ourselves in all those infinite versions of reality, would we be the same person in every one of those? Some of us would be remarkably consistent, regardless of circumstances, and others of us would change radically, depending on the circumstances.
I'm not trying to say that certain things are inevitable, so much as I'm trying to say that some people's character is more consistent than other people's. For me, what was interesting about Frank's storyline in episodes three and four was sympathizing with an assassin, and really understanding why somebody would do a terrible thing. I wanted the crown prince to be a sympathetic character, even though he's part of an evil state, just to show the complexity of this situation.
The series is, on some level, about political radicalization and waking up to the injustices of the society you live in, particularly in Frank's storyline. How did you approach that theme and character?
Frank is the closest to me in the TV series, because my father's Jewish, my mother's not. I don't identify as Jewish in a religious way. I'm not a religious person, and yet if you were living in a Nazi state, that would be no defense. Jews don't get to decide if they're Jews. That's really terrifying to me.
I think Frank, like 99.5 percent of us, just wants to keep his head down. He just wants to keep his family safe and get on with his life, and not make waves. It was very important to me to knock Frank out of that and put him in the position where he has to respond.
That is one of the key things for me in the novel: How do you hold on to your humanity in an inhuman world? For me, in the plotting of Frank's storyline, it's really him looking for a way to react to what's happened to his sister [who was put to death]. You can't just leave that, so what does he do? I don't know the answer, by the way. That's one of the interesting things about this show. These are really difficult questions for anybody to resolve.
On building the show: "You have to infuse [our] 1962 with the cultural values of a world where the fascists have won"
Most of the first half of the season is spent in Canon City in the neutral zone, and then you seem to almost abandon that locale in favor of stories set in New York and San Francisco. Why did you decide to structure the season that way?
It's a very interesting thing writing television for a streaming format. When you're doing an episodic series, there's a week between shows. That creates an expectation by the audience that they're going to have the same format, essentially, each week. If you're doing a streaming series where many of your viewers are going to watch the whole thing in a day, or a weekend, or a week, that [episodic] format is going to become annoying and frustrating. So I really look at this as more like a novel.
For me, [episodes] one and two are like a chapter, and then three and four are like a chapter, and then five through 10 is something else entirely. If there's a season two, it'll be something else entirely again. You're normally driving between two curbs and you're free to go anywhere you want, which is exciting but also a bit frightening. You really have to know what it is you're trying to say.
In terms of narrative demands, I needed Juliana to take her sister's place, and I needed for her to hit a dead end [in Canon City] and then return to San Francisco. In a traditional television series, you would never do that. It probably is still surprising, even in this environment, but for me it makes sense for what I wanted to do with the character.
There's a whole discussion among TV critics right now about how Netflix and Amazon shows can have very slow builds that can be frustrating to watch. How do you do a slow build but also add enough intriguing stuff to keep viewers watching?
It's absolutely true that you're not in a particular hurry [with Amazon], which I am thrilled by. Whether you get that balance right, other people tell you, at the end of the day. You write things trying to please yourself, then hope that it pleases other people as well.
A show like this needs the genre elements. It needs the action and the threat, because it does have an espionage element to it. Yet the parts I am most excited by are the character moments, and the texture of life in the show, and finding the balance between those two things is kind of the struggle every episode. I'm sure I do better some episodes than others.
In terms of production design, what were the big questions you faced in creating this alternate world?
Many. The first thing is you have to make it look like 1962, because if it looks too different, the audience is not going to recognize it as what we imagine 1962 to be. Then you have to infuse that 1962 with the cultural values of a world where the fascists have won. That means certain things will be emphasized in their society that weren't emphasized in ours, and certain things never would've happened.
The Times Square signs, for instance, that you see at the beginning of episode one, some of the early concept art that was done before the show ever went to production showed that shot with lots of billboards for pretzels and beer, and German girls with pigtails. I said no, no, no. That's not the point. It's not about Americans having become a beer-drinking, pretzel-eating nation. It's going to become a nation with fascist values, which in the case of Nazi Germany means agriculture and industry.
Then there's an optimism to American design in the '50s and early '60s. There's a Jetsons aesthetic that we think never would've happened, so none of the cars can have fins. There's a belief that John F. Kennedy's decision to stop wearing hats brought an end to hat wearing in America. In our world, everybody still wears hats. And on and on.
We had conversations like that about everything — the milk cartons, the movie marquees. The marquee you see at the beginning, that's The Punch Party, the sequel to the most popular comedy in Nazi Germany called The Punch Bowl. We thought celebrities who would still be working in this world would be the white-bread celebrities. It's a delicious irony that one of them is Rock Hudson [who was gay]. But there are no Jewish comedians, and there's certainly no rock 'n' roll. The only place you would hear roots music and blues still would be in the neutral zone. That's where we were allowed to have that kind of score.
In the book, the resistance to the Nazis and Japanese has been basically crushed. On the show it's not in great shape, but it's still doing things around the margins of society. What was behind that change?
In a TV series, you need conflicts, and you need characters who want something. I felt that was really important as a way into the show.
Having said that, this is not a show about the resistance taking back the world. The book is far more interesting than that. Philip K. Dick's mind is far more interesting and challenging than that. It's appropriately an element of the show, but it's not the point.
My favorite episode is episode six, which is basically a slice of life in this world and the character of Obergruppenführer Smith. He starts out as a stock villain, but in that episode you really build out his humanity. How did you fill in the blanks of that character?
I don't know what it says about me, but I find it very easy to identify with that character. He's the guy who, if things had gone differently in Europe, he'd be one of those guys who everybody looked up to.
But because we lost, and because he's a smart guy, he rose up in this evil system. He's a good father and a loving husband, but I think what we see in episode six is how his psyche is cracking under the contradictions of the ideology that he's embraced. He's really built up these defenses to try to not be in agony over the crimes he's been a part of.
I really do believe that most people who believe evil things are otherwise good people, who are nice to their families, but they've somehow been swept up in larger historical forces. It's very, very hard to go against that tide.
Major spoilers follow. If you haven't watched the whole season, stop reading!
On that finale: "As a storyteller, it was important to establish the rules of the world"
Hitler becomes an onscreen character in the finale, and he's also collecting all of the filmstrips that offer a glimpse into a world like ours, where the Allies won the war. Why did you decide to bring him onscreen?
The idea that these films would have value, and currency, and that Hitler would be someone who recognizes that, came almost immediately. From the first episode, these films were very important to the führer. We don't quite understand where they come from, or who's making them, but we know that he wants them. I just felt it was irresistible, the opportunity to dramatize Hitler and see what he would've been like if he'd lived.
The alternate-history filmstrips change as the series goes on, and even seem to reveal the characters' futures at one point. How are we to read that shift, and does Hitler's giant library have films from realities other than the one in the show, or our own?
There may well be. I deliberately haven't answered those questions in the narrative, so I don't want to answer them in the interview.
The thing that I don't want is for the show to be about, what are the films? I'm going to give answers, but to me, the science fiction of all this is the least interesting part of it. Science fiction is the excuse to tell stories about people living in this world, and the dilemmas and decisions that they face because of these alternate realities. In our world, no one gets to see the path other than the one that they take. You don't get to see what life might've been, and it's a very interesting thing to think how that would change you if you have an understanding of other paths in life, and other possible outcomes, and what decisions you might make if you had that insight.
That cliffhanger where Tagomi visits our reality seems to come out of nowhere, but then seems inevitable once you think about it. How did you lace that idea throughout the season without giving away the surprise?
It's straight from the book. That is the most overtly sci-fi moment of the show, and the one I'm most afraid of. I don't want the narrative to become overwhelmed by sci-fi, but on the other hand, there is science fiction in this narrative.
I did feel like, as a storyteller, it was important to establish the rules of this world before I finished the first season, so people would feel, looking back on the show, whenever it ends it had a coherence and an integrity and an intention from the start. It wasn't a thing where I was going to say, "Okay, season two now, here's the thing. Now you can have somebody wake up in a different reality." I have a shape in mind for the story that hopefully, when you look back, you'll see the justification for having that happen where it does.
The Man in the High Castle is streaming on Amazon Prime.