What is a good adaptation? This is a complex issue. The controversial end of the Game of Thrones series is proof of this. The Master of the High Castle, an Amazon Prime Video series adapted from a novel by Philip K. Dick, nevertheless provides a good element of answer.
Appropriations: Amazon Prime Video.
Time travel, multiverse and other Nazis: these subjects, worthy of a Marvel film when put together, are those of the fourth and final season of the series Le Maître du Haut Château. Available on Amazon Prime’s SVOD platform since November 15, it is the completion of an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s eponymous novel begun in 2015. She was then the first ambitious original series of Prime Video. The latter is now embarking on the adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Legendarium” with the next series The Lord of the Rings. The Master of the Haut Château is therefore an excellent object of study for evaluating the quality of re-interpretation of basic material of great cultural value. Did this series do better than Game of Thrones, which had a rather chaotic ending? For us, the answer is yes: not only is the series qualitative, but above all it respects with great skill the spirit of its author, Philip K. Dick.
Edgar Allan Poe’s stories asked readers, “What is the key to the mystery?” Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s unspeakable people made them wonder “what is this thing? ». Philip Kindred Dick’s work questions the very nature of reading and the reader’s own existence. For such is the founding theme of the style of this American science-fiction author: consciousness. Many times adapted for television and cinema, Philip K. Dick’s literary works experiment to better dissect human consciousness: what if robots were as conscious as humans (the Blade Runner)? What if our memories, our life, weren’t ours (Total Recall) ? What if we knew that our fate was pre-determined ? (Minority Report) ? What if our conscience prevents us from living (A Scan Darkly) ? What if history had been different?
In his first successful novel, The Master of the High Castle, Philip K. Dick takes up this question and gives it another dimension: and what if we were aware that History is perhaps not what it really is? In this uchronic story from 1962, one of the first of its kind, Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire won World War II and divided the United States and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, fifteen years after the war, a proof of the opposite situation (the victory of the Allies, as in our reality), produced by a mysterious individual, will unleash passions. This proof (a fictitious book called The Weight of the Grasshopper) only serves the characters in the novel to become aware of their condition in order to better take control of their lives and get out of totalitarianism. In the eponymous Amazon Prime Video series, it goes much further.
In its serial adaptation, the trigger for the plot of Maître du Haut Château is not a book but a series of film reels. The authenticity of the images they project (historical and very real for us, the spectators) is undeniable. It therefore suggests thatanother course of History is not only possible but that there is an alternative world. This knowledge changes the characters and their journey. Only the first season of the series consists of an effective adaptation of the novel. This last season represents the culmination of a re-interpretation begun two seasons earlier.
In season four, the Nazi government of the United States – led, as Reichsmarshall, by the aptly named John Smith (Rufus Sewell) – no longer really seeks to suppress the famous revealing images created by Hawthorne Abendsen. He was inspired by them to build a portal to the alternative world from which they originated – the Nebenwelt. For the totalitarian regime, this portal is a means of contaminating the multiverse of their ideology. But for John Smith, it’s an opportunity to find his dead son. In this other world (a classic sixties America), he pretends to be his alter-ego with the sole aim of living a few moments with the alternative, lively version of his son. This narrative arc is typical of Philip K. Dick’s style. If he is well aware that he does not really know this son from another world and is not his real father, John Smith will still play the game at his expense. Having never really lived together, father of world 1 and son of world 2 do not understand each other. The Reichsmarshall may consult Abendsen to take a step back, but it doesn’t succeed in doing so. A true reincarnation of Philip K. Dick, this character questions him more than he answers. When he shares his secret with his wife Helen (Chelah Horsdal), John Smith realizes, too late, that his mind has suffered the consequences of this encounter with the alternative world. This couple, until then so united, no longer share the same conception of things: for Helen, even if there may be other versions of her son still alive somewhere, her real child is dead and nothing can change this reality.
John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, and Juliana Crain, played by Alexa Davalos (Credits: Amazon Prime Video).
On the side of the remaining protagonists, it is not Nazi nuclear technology that opens the door to the alternative world but consciousness itself. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) takes up the torch carried by Mr. Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) – eliminated from the first episode, the actor being busy in season two of Lost in Space on Netflix. The knowledge of Yi-King, an ancient Chinese book supposedly predictive, and a deep mastery of meditation allow him to transfer his body and mind to the other world. The character of Juliana then becomes a ghost, lost between two planes of existence. The other characters doubt her existence when they meet her. It fully embodies the faculty of our consciousness to incarnate itself a portal: towards other worlds, those of dreams, imagination or hallucination. As a proof: the conclusion of the ultimate episode where people from alternative worlds enter the series’ world, like the consciences of the spectators diving inside before its last fade to black.
In addition to constructing a coherent continuation of the first events and the universe established by the novel, as they are taken up in the first season, this season four of Maître du Haut Château succeeds perfectly in retranscribing the style and spirit of the work, in the broad sense, of Philip K. Dick. It is hoped that future series Lord of the Rings or The Witcher will be equally successful adaptations.