David Kajganich, executive producer and showrunner who developed The Terror for television, and executive producer and showrunner Soo Hugh discuss the challenges of adapting a beloved novel, their unique approach to horror and the power struggle that may have doomed the expedition.
Q: What was the driving force that piqued your interest in this story?
Soo Hugh: It’s a gateway drug once you read Dan Simmons’s book. He did such an extraordinary job bringing to life one of naval history’s greatest mysteries. You think beyond the book about who these people really were and start digging. We did so much research on these characters. When you read the biography of Crozier or Fitzjames, you start all of a sudden seeing all of these details and you imagine these people in the situation. We fell in love. It’s been a dream project for us.
David Kajganich: I think it’s rare to find stories where you can take characters so far down the road in terms of unpacking who they are as people. Emergencies are great laboratories for that, but most emergencies are rather quick. This one took place over the course of years. It gave us a chance to really pull these characters apart and examine them in slow-motion. It’s a great gift for writers to have access to history that allows for that deep character work.
Q: What were the biggest challenges or opportunities when it came to adapting a beloved book?
DK: When it came time to start thinking about how we would approach it, we made a very concrete decision in the writers’ room that we wouldn’t start with plot and that we would try to plot the show as much out of characters’ choices as possible. We really spent time on one character and then the next, and going through everything from the book we wanted to keep. We also did a lot of research on the characters: What else did we want to use to build out their arc? So, after the end of all those weeks, we didn’t have a plot in front of us. We had character studies. We went in and took beats from each one and synthesized them into episodes. I don’t know how often that’s the method for building out a season of television, but it was incredibly rewarding in this case. I can’t imagine doing it a different way and still retaining the amount of attention the show pays to character. In genre, it’s easy to just start thinking about it in terms of set pieces. We just pushed that away as long as we could.
SH: On a practical level of how to translate genre from a book to the screen, in the book what’s not written can give you a lot of room for imagination, but on the screen, you’re seeing things happen. So, I think once we realized there’s a discrepancy, we decided not to show a lot of things. In some ways, the book gave us freedom. Dan Simmons didn’t show a lot of things and we actually took out more than the book and that was really freeing. Once we took out all of those things, “terrifying” took on different meanings.
Q: How did you want to define what “terror” was on the show?
DK: There’s a great duality on the show. There aren’t many shades in between. You’re either on these ships in a very claustrophobic world or you’re outside of the ships in a very exposed world. We took our cues from that duality with just trying to figure out what the anxieties are inside the ship and what the anxieties are outside of the ship and trying to find those organic anxieties rather than enforce some kind of horror. With this particular story, there’s plenty of anxiety to go around. We never had to go hunting far for what we build into the tension of a scene.
Q: Hierarchy is very important to the show, but particularly amongst the power structure at the top. How did you want to build the dynamic between Franklin, Crozier and Fitzjames?
DK: At its heart, it becomes a kind of family. John Franklin is the father of that family and he has two sons, essentially, and they couldn’t be more different. We tried to think of it in terms of family politics, but in a way that they themselves would not articulate. A lot of the emotional damage that gets done in this scenario of these three men working together – it’s damage that’s very personal but that could never take a personal face. It meant the actors had a really fun proposition to perform those scenes in a way that was not about articulating their emotions but trying to conceal them in a way. One of the great pleasures of the show is that all of that decorum falls away eventually, but early in the season, these men believe they must retain control at all times.
Q: John Franklin is driven, sometimes blindly, by his faith. Do you think that is central to his conflict with Crozier?
SH: Hubris is a huge running theme in our show, but we also wanted to make sure that we told that hubris story with a little bit of subversive twist in the sense that even though Franklin carried the Victorian armor with him, we should also sympathize with the decisions he made as well. In hindsight, we now know that wrong decisions were made, but at that time, Franklin did not realize he was condemning his men.
DK: They had plenty of cultural blind spots that factor into how the disaster happened, but we didn’t want to portray any villains in the show. Or heroes, really. We didn’t want to be binary. We’re all carrying our own cultural blind spots that don’t necessarily make us villainous people. They make us a product of the age we’re in. We wanted to take that approach. You’re not being asked to judge them from a distance. You’re being asked to go through this experience with them.
Q: The Inuit culture is a big part of the show. How important was that aspect in the storytelling?
SH: Neither of us are Inuit and I think one of the first things we realized was that in order for us to tell this story, we really had to make sure we brought in people. We did not want to be these people who reinterpreted a whole culture. As much as possible, we tried to make sure we fact-checked and gut-checked everything. One of the things we’re really proud of is the language in the show. We hired an Inuit translator who is also an author to make sure every word on the screen is accurate and faithful to the language.
DK: And we had a fair number of Inuit actors in the cast and in supportive roles. We just invited everyone who was participating from an Inuit culture to tell us what they were seeing and whether we were getting it right. We wanted it to be a very open collaboration…. What you discover very quickly when you’re researching Inuit culture is that there isn’t a lot written down. Certainly, there is stuff to work with in terms of research, but it’s a much more discrete culture, partly because there aren’t the same rigid hierarchies where certain people are celebrated over others. Of course, we wanted to get things as accurate as we could and pull as many insights out of that research as we could. At the end of the day, it really felt like we got really close. We wanted people who are from Inuit cultures, who don’t often see their cultures represented in television or movies, to feel like we did it with some real rigor and compassion and intellectual curiosity.
Q: Because this is based in history, we know how this story doesn’t have the happiest of endings. Was it a challenge in creating suspense and moments of hope?
DK: It was easier than it might seem. If you take these characters as complete people, many of them must have thought they were getting out up until the very end. When you have that kind of hope and fortitude, you bring your humor and quirks with you. Your irony remains intact. Being able to dip into those things often and freely and organically was a great joy of writing the show. … The last episodes of the season are some of the warmest of the show, maybe in a way that people won’t expect, but I think when people see them they’ll understand what a disaster like this means on a human level. People don’t give up so easily. They don’t turn against one another so easily. People try to help. They try to survive.
SH: It’s also the reason why stories exist. Death as an endgame is not interesting to us. We know the men perish, but we don’t know how they died or when they died. Not knowing that gives us a lot of freedom to create these really beautiful, tragic but heartwarming stories of what happened to them in the end. We never felt like we were hamstrung by death.
Q: What are you most excited for people to see in this show?
DK: We got to make a show that’s like the kinds of things we love to watch. We get to deploy a more elegant kind of horror. I think what we have instead of that constant, visceral action that a lot of other horror shows have is a kind of rigor. If people watch the show closely, almost everything we put down we pick back up again later in the season. A story someone tells at dinner or an object that’s lying on the table – these things have unexpected lives in the season. I’m excited about people paying that kind of close attention and feeling like they were rewarded for it. That’s going to be a lot of fun.
SH: It’s very hard to balance an epic scale with an intimate story. It’s the holy grail of big cinema narratives, but I do feel like we did it in The Terror. For those people who love that epic survival story, it’s there. For those people who want that intimate character story, it’s there. We have scares, but we also have a lot of humor and there are tears. We want everyone to laugh, cry and scream through it all, and just get all of the emotions.
This Q&A was originally published on AMC’s The Terror website. It has been reposted here for posterity.