Dan Simmons’ tale of ice, death and the unknown comes to the screen in The Terror. Tara Bennett boards a voyage of the damned…
History is the keeper of endless secrets, forever tempting our imaginations with the “what ifs” that remain unanswered. But that hazy veil of supposition can be a well for great fiction, as storytellers fill the blanks for things the past will never reveal.
It’s into that icy void that American novelist Dan Simmons ventured for his 2007 historical thriller, The Terror, based on the real-life story of Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In his book Simmons weaves historical record about the fates of the 129 crewmembers of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with an imagined Arctic monster that stalks the men to their deaths.
It’s the kind of tale that used to be told on cold nights around a warm fire. Today it’s told on television, where executive producer Ridley Scott can bring the relentless claustrophobia and human drama to life in a period piece that invokes 10 hours of spine-chilling tension.
The writers and executive producers behind the show are David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, who were paired together to bring this lush adaptation and character piece to the screen. Jared Harris, Ciarán Hinds and Tobias Menzies star as the woefully unprepared naval captains desperate to stay alive in the most remote and threatening environment on the planet.
The adaptation process actually started a few years ago, when Kajganich was hired to write a two-hour screenplay of the book for an intended Universal Studios feature. But it stalled in that medium until Scott’s company bought it for TV development. Now working within the limited-series format, Kajganich and Hugh got the luxury of spreading the fascinating story over 10 hours. “AMC and Scott gave us a blank storytelling cheque,” Kajganich explains. “They just trusted our taste, our timing, our sense of horror and our sense of drama.”
In looking at what to directly adapt, Kajganich tells SFX, “Any of the plot movements from the book that felt like they would help us grow the characters we’d loved we kept. The ones that felt like there were other, more interesting ways, or more surprising ways, to grow those characters did not. It was really born out of ‘how do we keep telling these character stories in a way that hits the genre notes we need to hit?’ By doing it that way, there are plenty of surprises, and unexpected turns. Things that the book won’t prepare you for, in the best possible way.”
Yet for fans of the book, Hugh says the series will let them see some seminal moments play out in all their visual glory. “I think there are two holy moments in the book that we knew, as fans, had to be included,” she offers. “Not just because we love them, but because we knew fans of the book were going to demand them. One scene is when Blanky (Ian Hart) is in the rigging and the second is the New Year’s Eve Carnivale masque.”
Both are incredibly tense sequences that revolve around something outside of the contained hulls of the expedition’s ships that wants every last one of them dead. Is it a marauding polar bear, as the crew assumes, or are they cursed by something else in the aftermath of one of the expedition’s accidentally violent encounters with an Inuit shaman and his daughter (Nive Nielsen)? The series leaves audiences guessing throughout about those encounters as it plays out like a glacial Jaws.
The showrunners explain that the cat-and-mouse of it all also serves to pick at the fraying human anxieties of the crew, as they constantly second guess themselves. And that includes the Captains Crozier (Harris) and Franklin (Hinds), who view their mission from different places of folly and destiny respectively.
“Great stories are always timely, and in this story you’re dealing with a lot of things about colonisation, about not understanding other cultures and what that does, in terms of separation and choices,” Hugh details. Much of that story will be explored in the expanded role of the Inuit woman, Lady Silence (Nielsen), who represents the indigenous perspective of the Arctic versus the manifest destiny of the naval explorers.
“She has a story arc that is just as complex and urgent as anyone else’s in the show,” Kajganich says of another detail different from the book. “When we walked out of the writer’s room with that settled, we were just so happy. Because with all respect to the book, there are characters who don’t have a lot to do. So, one of the fun things about the show is if you know the book, you’ll see that certain characters will ascend in a particular way, or descend in a particular way that we might not show at all. And characters who are barely mentioned in the book, suddenly become major characters [in our show]/”
The pair also praise their cast, who dug into the true histories of the men they played, trying to get at the truth of their terrible circumstances. “We would get together on Sunday nights and start talking about all the scenes coming up,” Kajganich says of their process with the actors. “At a certain point, they were now occupying these roles and were the experts about these characters. And we were no longer the writing team. We could discuss wording and inflection and everything so that they unleash the text before they had to perform it. It was a wonderful process.”
“We got a good sense of each other in those meetings,” actor Tobias Menzies adds of his time with the executive producers. “I remember thinking from the get-go, ‘these are people that I would trust with telling a story.’”
As it turns out, telling the story of James Fitzjames was incredibly involving for the actor from day one. “Once I dug into the story behind Dan Simmons’ novel and the actual history, it is a genuinely extraordinary story and that’s mouth-watering as an actor, just the idea of trying to bring that to the screen and do justice to it.”
Hugh says Menzies did just that, making Fitzjames a real person with flaws that would become eventually relatable. “It would’ve been so easy to have turned James into a villain,” she says. “But that’s not the interesting way to flesh out this person. We had to change his biography. We knew he was just an extraordinary, accomplished person, just on the wrong expedition,” Menzies adds. “And you’re talking high early Victorian times, where there are so many pitfalls for it to potentially be too mannered, too uptight. It needs to feel like a different time but you also want to be able to get into their rib cage, and into their heart and understand.”
Making the crew real, and not clichés, is something Hugh is happy their series takes the time to do. “The last few shooting days I remember, the actors knew that shop inside and out, and that was extraordinary to see because they made it a home.”
She says that authenticity brings their tragic mistakes into the now, with lessons that feel incredibly potent. “How can you not tell a story about the past and infuse some of what we know now, that’s the tragedy of this [story],” she explains. “And we also know that this one period that Franklin’s expedition sailed through was this anomaly in 700 years of Arctic weather. So, they also just had shitty luck.”
Hugh sighs. “It’s just a complicated mix of hubristic mistakes, but also factors that are beyond their control. That’s what makes the story so incredible.”
This article was originally published in SFX magazine. It has been transcribed here for accessibility.