Executive producer Dan Simmons, who authored the book upon which AMC’s The Terror is based, discusses seeing his work brought to life, the fatal flaw of the Franklin expedition, and the real-life discovery of the ships.
Q: What has the process of seeing your novel come to life been like for you?
A: I absolutely love movies and good series on TV. My wife and I met in inner-city Philadelphia from our college years and she and I made movies together. For me, seeing good actors use some of my lines from the book and to see the ships stuck in the ice, visually, is just wonderful. I think every novelist should enjoy that at one point.
Q: How involved were you in the development of the show? Did you offer any thoughts or advice?
A: I talked to [executive proudcer/showrunner Dave Kajganich] a couple of times before the series started and talked to the writers group, but that doesn’t fall under the heading of “guidance.” I know how capable of a writer he is and how much he already put into the project before writing the first script. The suspense in the series is what I was working for in the novel – to keep creating scenes that you could have explained ad nauseum, but you held out.
Q: Take us back to before The Terror was published. Where did the idea for the story come from?
A: I wanted to write a frightening story about Antarctica. I’ve always been interested in the South Pole and the toll it took on various brave men like Robert Falcon Scott. I researched more into the region and decided that it was really worked out in terms of heroes and epic endings, but one disadvantage of the South Pole is that it has indigenous life form. I didn’t think I could sell any editor on a book about a killer penguin. [Laughs] So, I was excited but I didn’t see how to do it. I followed a footnote of an explorer named Ranulph Fiennes, [who’s] skied atop the entire North Pole from one end of pack ice to the other and did the same in Antarctica. It mentioned the lost expedition of 1845, of Sir John Franklin’s crew gone missing. I lit up and thought, “That’s it!” I still owed my publisher one more book and told them what it was and they said, “No, we don’t want it. This is about people who died a long time ago. We want something fresh.” I disagreed and I wrote The Terror on my own and it did find a nice home and that led to the show.
Q: How did you decide to mix horror with the historical element?
A: I wanted an external threat. Even before I started writing, I knew that. I wanted something scary. I loved the 1951 Howard Hawks’ version of The Thing. What I love is that they can’t run away. Most haunted house stories are beaten by the simple fact that you can leave. In this case, the men can’t leave. It’s the harshest climate on the planet Earth and they are frozen in for three straight summers. The weather itself is an enemy. I knew I wanted the monster, if nothing else, as a metaphor of starvation, of the silences, of the cold and of the men’s most morose thoughts. A lot of my work deals with the supernatural. When I do go into the supernatural, I try to keep it in perspective in the sense that it’s second or third in importance. First would be the characters and the second tends to be a historical situation.
Q: How would you describe the three captains at the center of the story?
A: It was fun writing about those three especially because they’re the only three on-board in which I had any outside information. When I was writing the book, I was looking at lists of crew men’s names and ages from when they left England and there was no other data on most of them. I may have misused poor Mr. Hickey terribly because he had just an unpleasant name in my ears so I made him an unpleasant person. For Sir John Franklin and Captain Fitzjames and Captain Crozier, a lot had been written. You can see that much of Crozier’s life had been miserable because he was probably the finest captain and most experienced explorer in the world at that time, but he’s not going to get his own exploration because he was Catholic. For Fitzjames, I simply kept writing on what I read about him being less than shy. He liked to brag about his own exploits and he was the darling of the Royal Navy at that time. His involvement in China and elsewhere had made him a hero to everybody. With Franklin, he knew more than anybody that he was no one’s first choice and probably no one’s third or fifth choice, but they settled on him for various reasons that were convenient to the admiralty. It was his last chance at glory and he was going to take it.
Q: The show deals with the themes of faith and hubris. What are your thoughts? Was that the fatal flaw of this expedition?
A: [Franklin] ignored much of the advice of his smarter captains, which comes across very well in the series. Crozier truly was very experienced. He knew what he was talking about. He urged them all to turn back that first summer, but they ignored him. Franklin doomed them by not listening to another group, too. There were Inuit in the area and they encountered Lady Silence. Later on, one of the lieutenants sees a small Inuit group on the island and if they had paid attention to how they ate, how they fished and the clothing they made, those men would have almost certainly survived. By choosing not to think of the Inuit as helpers, they wrote their own death penalty.
Q: What would you say to die-hard fans of your book about what they can expect from this show?
A: Some die-hard fans of any novel want the book to somehow be put literally on the screen, but you can’t do that going into a 10-part series. I would say to my most avid readers that you will enjoy what comes even when it’s not true to the novel. All my working life, I’ve wanted to hand one of my books to a refined creative intelligence and see what they do. I’ve written a few scripts myself and outlines for production companies, so I understand how you have to consolidate a theme that might involve a dozen characters down to one or two. … I would urge my readers not to feel bad about any changes but to enjoy them.
Q: What is your reaction to the real-life ships now being found? Are you curious to see if we learn what actually happened to these men?
A: I’m absolutely waiting and wanting to learn about that. I kicked a piece of furniture when I heard that it was all going to be revealed what the true ending of the boats were right before we wrote and performed this series. I know the writers and directors were paying close attention to the revelations as they came out from the Canadian ministry and so forth. For me, personally, I’m really glad we found them, but I might point out, we didn’t find them where everybody said they were left. The note said they were elsewhere, so somebody sailed those ships quite a distance. They weren’t together, but neither one was where they should have been and that ties in with one aspect of my ending of the book. I’m glad they could still write the story they wanted to tell for the series without the reality impinging too heavily.
This Q&A was originally published on AMC’s The Terror website. It has been reposted here for posterity.