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How The Man in the High Castle expanded on Philip K. Dick's work for four seasons

By Liz Shannon Miller
Man in the High Castle Season 4 Rufus Sewell

The key to adapting a great book as a TV show is dependent on one major thing: being able to expand upon the original work.

That freedom has been a major factor in the success of The Man in the High Castle, which just launched its fourth and final season on Amazon. Offering up an alternative perspective on 20th-century history with the premise "What if the Axis powers had won World War II?", The Man in the High Castle is based upon the 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick, whose other works have been the basis for notable adaptations such as Blade Runner and Minority Report.

Isa Dick Hackett, Dick's daughter, has been heavily involved in many recent adaptations and is an executive producer on Man in the High Castle. And while she's protective of his legacy, when it comes to bringing her father's stories to a screen of any size, she told SYFY WIRE, she's pretty loose with the reins. "I encourage the writers to use it as an inspiration and a spiritual guide, rather than looking to do literal adaptations," she told SYFY WIRE earlier this month.

High Castle star Joel de la Fuente (who plays Kenpeitai chief inspector Kido) confirms this.

"What she said was that what's always been most important to her has been finding people to collaborate with or to trust her father's work with — not to do a one-to-one idea-for-idea adaptation, but to take the ideas and work within the spirit of those ideas," he said.

This, Hackett says, is because "obviously on a show like this, you're going to need to expand it, and find ways to [do so] while retaining the essence, while retaining the sort of spiritual fidelity to the original and really finding ways to broaden the landscape of the narrative.

"When you have partners that you trust — great partners and great thinkers — there are often ways that they bring to the effort that can both expand it well while retaining that essence of it," she continued. "And so, on this show, of course, that's what we did, and hats off to the writers who did such a fantastic job of expanding and yet you know, still, again, retaining the spiritual essence of it."

De la Fuente noted that Hackett is actually very unusual in that respect, but "she's comfortable enough and knowledgeable enough about her father's work to have an appetite to collaborate with people."

This idea was passed down from the writers to the actors, especially because so many members of the cast, including all of the accumulated actors to which SYFY WIRE was speaking, were playing characters who were not in the books.

Finding out if Dick had originally created the character John Smith was the very first thing actor Rufus Sewell did when he learned about the project from his agent ("I did a very quick Wikipedia scan," he said). That information left him concerned that Smith was added to the narrative to be "a one-dimensional bad guy, to give ballast to it. So that was one of my reservations. But I spoke to them and realized it wasn't quite that. I just did as much research of what people were telling themselves about being the good guys in the midst of Nazi Germany, and the history of it. All of that was very useful."

Adding characters such as Smith wasn't all. In expanding the show beyond the limits of the book, the show's many producers, over the years, have drawn upon not just their own imaginations, but two chapters of an unpublished and unfinished sequel that Dick had begun writing before abandoning the project. This, Hackett said, was because "revisiting the research on Nazis and the extermination camps, and so on and so forth, was so personally upsetting and difficult" for him.

However, Dick's writings (actually, recordings — according to Hackett, these chapters were put down in the form of audiotapes, preserved in the Dick archives) did include Dick's biggest contribution to expanding the show: the concept of a portal between universes. "I thought it was a great inspiration and launching point for the last couple of seasons," she said.

This and other big ideas were pretty essential because, as Sewell said, a good deal of the original novel was contained within the show's pilot episode, while some of it was drawn out slowly over the four seasons. But so much of it was drawn from the imagination of its original author: "All of the really outlandish sci-fi elements that people sometimes accused this production of just inventing are actually genuine Philip K. Dick, based on the same story ideas."

In the original novel, the versions of alternate worlds are depicted by another book, known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, while the series transforms this as numerous film reels which are passed around as contraband. "We have to put that same faith in the films into the television series — that power," says star Jason O'Mara.

The fourth season did have some fun with this idea, as the Nazis in power force Hawthorne Abendsen (Stephen Root), the former safeguarder of the films (making him the actual Man in the High Castle) host a Twilight Zone-esque TV show titled Tales From the High Castle. Sewell called out how well these scenes fit into the world of the show, calling them "so spot-on," stylistically speaking.

It's the sort of innovation made possible by years of collaboration, guided by Hackett's careful consideration when it comes to remembering her father's legacy. When approaching any new additions to Dick's work, she says, she begins by asking whether it runs contrary to any of his core values: specifically, empathy, compassion, and "what it means to be human."

As she continued, "That's why you choose certain partners because you have a good idea of their sensibility and what they bring to it. Generally, my job is to encourage that and to encourage people to think outside the box and to bring their talent to the material and help elevate it. Fortunately, we've had really great people on this team, and hopefully the audience sees that in the show."

The Man in the High Castle is streaming now on Amazon Prime.