The original announcement that AMC would create an adaptation of Dan Simmons award-winning novel The Terror was notable not only because many felt the novel would make for great television, but because it was announced as an anthology series. The Terror is a sprawling giant of a novel that spans almost 250,000 words and reaches almost 800 pages. Throughout his sprawling narrative, Simmons expertly splices several conflicts, narrates multiple point-of-view characters, and alternates between past and present timelines. That means that adapting the novel into a series that has received favourable reviews all-round rather than a feature-film was a smart choice. But while we can say the show itself was good, readers might want to know how good an adaptation it was.
Bearing in mind the oft-referenced limitations movies present directors with when they’re adapting and recontextualising novels – particularly hefty ones – it’s not unusual for readers to opine that their particular favourite should have been a television series rather than a feature film. With The Terror, they got their wish. Simmons’ weighty tome still needed to be streamlined and repurposed for the screen, but the end result can definitely be called a success.
To begin with, the casting was fantastic. Brilliant performances from well-known and soon to be well-known actors alike were turned in week after week, episode after episode. AMC’s adaptation captured all the existential dread of the novel and conveyed it in all its atmospheric glory. Additionally, the plot of the novel, which can be seen as unwieldy – particularly when Simmons fleshes out the detail of Crozier’s past life – was trimmed neatly and succinctly. If there is one small complaint, it’s simply that the Tuunbaq of the television series isn’t as well fleshed-out and mythologised as the one of the novel. Nevertheless, this is solid and captivating television.
With established actors like Ciaran Hinds, Tobias Menzies and Jared Harris leading the series, there was always going to be a level of quality about the show that would help the characters come off the page – and out of history – and into viewer’s lounge-rooms. On top of that, a truly excellent performance from Adam Nagaitis, whose Cornelius Hickey is a compelling and charismatic combination of spite, manipulation and craziness, meant that the interpersonal conflicts between characters would make the show required watching. With any survival story, the tensions and power-shifts between key players are integral to the plot, and Simmons’ novel of The Terror keeps this idea of survival as its central motif at the heart of all the dire circumstances the characters have to endure. The television series is able to replicate that effectively because, right across the cast, the performances take you deep into the polar waste and force you to stare the characters’ isolation in the face.
The atmosphere of the show has been talked about on message boards and articles across the internet, but if there’s one thing the show excels at, it’s the recreation of the slow-burning existential horror the novel exudes. Both the novel and the series are grim, grisly and visceral. Even in the early stages when the Tuunbaq is a horrifying threat seen only in the peripherals of your screen or at such close range it’s impossible to get a clear and clarifying view, The Terror revels in the terse escalation of dread and steady depletion of hope its setting and tone demand. While the monster is a very real threat, it’s almost a sideshow to the imminent ones of starvation, of mutiny, and of the impending destruction of the ships as the vice-like grip of the pack-ice squeezes tighter and tighter. While the Tuunbaq, initially thought to be a polar bear, is a random threat, these more human ones will kill everyone if the men cannot escape. As readers know, Simmons captured this perfectly. The series does as well.
The biggest challenge for any television adaptation of a novel is the plot. Mimic the book too absolutely and you could create something derivative. Change it beyond recognition and you might as well retitle it and stop calling it an adaptation. AMC’s adaptation straddles this line brilliantly. Everything about this series is steeped in the spirit of Simmons’ novel. The themes are all there. The important story arcs are rich and developed, and the more corpulent excesses of the novel have been trimmed back to create a solid ten hours of horror. Even some of the novel’s more overt conflicts have been trimmed effectively without losing any of the key messages. Hickey’s conflict with Irving plays out with more detail in the novel, but it’s not central and there’s still enough homage to it in the series to make the resolution of this conflict as effective as it is in the book.
Finally, we come to the Tuunbaq. While the challenge of the plot is probably the most difficult of any adaptation, the realisation of any monster dreamed up by a skilled novelist is just as daunting a task for any special effects team. The Tuunbaq is no different. Considering the nature of novelised fiction, the reality is that the monster probably doesn’t look the same to any two people. One of the key tools novelists use when creating monsters is reference-based imagery. Once the special effects team settles on their design, they’re bound to please and/or upset viewers. It can’t be helped. As for the uses of Tuunbaq in a narrative sense, its origins and purpose are discussed in the television series, but this is an area where the novel spends a great deal of time. Simmons ultimately critiques the attitudes of European explorers who failed to survive for even a short time, despite their technology, in harsh climes whereas ‘inferior’ races were able not only to survive, but to thrive with far less in terms of resources and the Tuunbaq is the narrative device he uses to explore this notion, weaving it into a prophecy that when the white people arrive the ice will melt and life for the Inuit will never be the same. AMC doesn’t go that far with this idea. It’s there, but it’s embedded deeper in the tapestry of the show. For the show, the Tuunbaq is primarily an unexplainable juggernaut of horror. Yes, it still represents the other, but more than anything, it provides the hysterical fear needed to catalyse the stranded men into more irrational levels of conflict.
As far as television adaptations go, The Terror has to be seen as a successful one that takes the spirit of its source material and makes it palatable for television audiences. It doesn’t change anything too drastically, but it repurposes for its own use and provides something altogether different for viewers in a time when streaming networks and cable channels are crying out for quality.