Book To TV: How AMC’s The Terror Capitalizes On Its Strongest Sources

by Catrina Dennis By | March 26, 2018 at 4:00 PM

In May of 1845, more than 120 seafaring British Royal Navy crew members vanished at sea when their expedition to discover the Northwest Passage went terribly wrong. The mystery of their disappearance inspired tall tales and speculation, and out of that came Dan Simmons’ horrifying novel, The Terror.

The daunting period drama is based on the real-life story of Captain Sir John Franklin, his ships, known as the H.M.S. Terror and the H.M.S. Erebus, and the mystery behind what happened to them after they suddenly dropped out of communication and sight in July of 1845. Tonight, a television series adaptation of the novel will officially hit the airwaves via AMC. It stars Jared Harris as Captain Francis Cozier, Tobias Menzies as Captain James Fitzjames, Ciarán Hinds as Franklin himself, and singer Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence, who captivates from the start despite being the only prominent female character for most of the series.

Unique to this not-so-typical horror story are the many monsters that lay beyond just the terrifying creature that is picking the crew off one by one. When the ships go missing, these four characters and their crew are tested to the limits of their very wills, causing the true horror of the series to exist both inside and outside of the characters in physical format. Characters fall into despair that is so bleak and gutting, it somehow becomes a monster in itself. Through Nielsen and Harris’ performances especially, survival becomes something more than just a goal—it becomes a badge of honor. But more on that later…

Photo by Aidan Monaghan/AMC - © 2018 AMC Film Holdings LLC. 

Bringing the series to life for a savvy television audience required the storytellers behind the series to deeply examine the source material and mine it for strong, but sometimes underdeveloped subplots. Rich character qualities that may have been overlooked on a fan’s first read-through are front and center in a way that’s not insulting, but almost gratifying. Everything from costume design to the tiny knick-knacks seen in the background of major shots have been thoroughly researched, and it shows. Ahead of the show’s debut, the minds behind the series sat down with the press to discuss the changes and similarities between the adaptation and its source.

“In the case of any sort of long-form adaptation, you want to do two things at the same time,” said executive producer and co-writer David Kajganich. “You want to honor what people loved about the book, and for people who haven’t read the book, we wanted the experience of the show to be like what it felt like to read that book for the first time for us because it’s such a fantastic adventure. But at the same time you want to mix things up, you want to subvert things. Our climatic take… required flipping some things here and emphasizing other things, and characters who are very small parts of the narrative of the book are much bigger in our show… and it’s all meant to kind of give as surprising an experience of watching it as it is to read the book.”

AMC's The Terror event

“We approached the book as fans and it’s such a pleasure to get a book, that’s source material that you love,” said executive producer Soo Hugh, who also co-wrote two episodes. “And Dan gave us the greatest gift which is his trust. He understood that we weren’t going to be able to tell the story exactly like the book. But because we were such big fans, I think Dave and I feel very confident in saying that fans of the book will be very happy about what we kept… and they’ll see that the changes we made feel inevitable due to what the story was.”

Between the time of the novel’s publishing in 2007 and the series release, much has happened: archaeological dives have uncovered both missing ships, the relics left behind on them, and even hints of how some of the sailors perished. With that in mind, according to the execs, the story has been changed to include some of these important finds.

“We tried very hard to include all of [the newly-discovered information] in our narrative, which certainly meant points of departure from the book,” said Kajganich. “But… people who ‘get the bug’ from either reading the book or watching the show in terms of learning about this actual history will be gratified to see the lengths we went to in order to make the show accurate to what they’ve been finding in the archeological records.”

Left: Jared Harris as Francis Crozier / Right: Greta Scacchi as Lady Jane Franklin 
- The Terror _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Nadav Kander/AMC

The storytellers met the media in a large studio, surrounded by props and costumes from the series, along with a VR experience that put the user on the deck of one of the boats. This particular experience involved a terrifying encounter with the monster itself, which jumped at the user abruptly in order to scare them. But contrary to this particular experience, the horror in The Terror is focused entirely on perspective. “We really wanted to make sure that we were respecting this subjective view of terror,” said Hugh. “Whatever the terrifying element is, whether it is the creature, whether it is starvation, or whether it is this onset of disease, that it comes from the character’s point of view.”

“We had a real allergy to jump scares,” joked Kajganich.

“So the real goal is; if our characters aren’t scared, our audience shouldn’t be scared,” said Hugh, who joked about the creature likely being the “best” method of death in the show in comparison to some of the far more real horrors of being lost at sea in below-freezing temperatures. “Some of the other horrors are so terrifying. I’d personally rather not die of lead poisoning or cannibalism.”

Greta Scacchi as Lady Jane Franklin - The Terror _ Season 1, Gallery
Photo Credit: Nadav Kander/AMC

In deepening storylines, one particular “addition” that stood out was the role of Lady Silence, an Inuit woman of the Netsilik people who seems to be mute for the entire length of her storyline in the novel. That, of course, changed for television, giving the character a more prominent role— one needed in today’s world, where women of color who are given speaking roles still fall sharply in number under white women, and men in general. “We wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, before we started writing scripts, that we knew that she had as vibrant and complicated and ambiguous an arc as any of our major male characters,” said Kajganich. “Once we sort of found our way through what that would be, it was quite exciting because it meant some departures from Dan’s book, it meant that the first time you see her, she’s speaking… and she doesn’t lose her ability to speak for half the season, so she had a lot to say as it turns out, and it was a pleasure to find out what those things would be.”

“In a show that questions the patriarchy and questions hierarchy, we could not have had a character that would have no agency. That was off the table,” said Hugh. The character is portrayed by Nive Nielsen, the lead singer of the award-winning Greenlandic group Nive. “It took us months to find her… and we ended up widening our search from the traditional LA to New York and London… and she was extraordinary, and we had finally found her. We’re just lucky to have her.”

The Terror takes surprising dark turns by using emotion rather than a physical monster—aside from when it does, in fact, use the physical monster. Don’t ever assume you’ll get by without being thrown off-balance by the creature’s terrifying presence. By keeping the horror as psychological as it is physical, the series makes survival seem almost delusional to hope for within its own hopelessness. But from this terror rises equally human stories about honor, respect, and making choices that are bigger than one person will ever be. A wild ride from start to finish with details that even the most dedicated Simmons fan will double-take at, The Terror is well worth your watch when it debuts tonight on AMC. Watch it at 9PM.