The Terror airs Mondays on AMC.
You know the promises that book reviewers make in the blurbs on paperbacks? That this thriller will keep you up all night? That reading it in bed, you’ll be spooked into turning a light on? In my adult life, only one novel has lived up to those warnings/enticements. Dan Simmons’s brick-thick lit-historic horror spree The Terror, from 2007, swallowed a week of my life. I remember it less as a book I enjoyed than a fever I survived: Here was a gripping what-if? account of the fate of two Royal Navy polar exploration ships that set out in 1847 to cross the Northwest Passage and never returned. The crews of the HMS Erebus and Terror survived a couple of winters stuck in the ice southwest of King William Island, both ships heated by state-of-the art stove and duct systems. Simmons’s novel imagines, in painstaking detail, the cold and the quiet, the comforts of routine and naval discipline, the impossible choices faced by the top brass, the crew’s murmurs of mutiny and flashes of madness. He writes beautifully of the frozen seascape, of the long night’s dancing lights, but also of what it would do to a mind to be trapped there.
And then, because Simmons is one of the great genre novelists of our time, he adds a monster. And it’s a hell of a monster at that, one to which I’ve always figured no TV or film adaptation could do justice.
That last part I was right about. The monster in AMC’s tony new ten-episode adaptation of The Terror grows less scary the more we see it. In Simmons’s book, it’s mythic and mysterious, often seeming some more unknowable manifestation of the Arctic itself — possibly connected to local natives’ folklore — than a beast renderable in pixels. By the time we get a good look at it, deep into an otherwise masterful series, the monster is revealed as an all-too-standard CGI monster and has come to seem a plot device, a bearish variant on Chekhov’s gun. You can’t get too comfortable, as these characters sort out their survival plans, because you know that bear gun’s going to go off again before the end. But its shadowed first appearances, as it lurks outside the ships commanded by Captain John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), prove properly upsetting. At times it seems as if the Arctic night has grown teeth, that any of her majesty’s doughty explorers can get chomped at any time.
The best news, then, about AMC’s The Terror is this: The series never bests Simmons’s book, but it is powerfully, pleasurably harrowing in its own right. I tore through the ten episodes provided for review the way a starving explorer might fresh seal meat. This Terror, developed by David Kajganich and certainly the best of AMC’s prestige-TV horror series, is always suspenseful, superbly acted, shrewdly paced and committed to summoning up what the experience of Arctic isolation might actually have been like. Scenes in the ships, which lean according to the pressures of the sea-ice that’s trapped them, emphasize the duck-your-head crampedness of naval life, but also the rigorous discipline. The visual effects are impressive enough that the show rarely looks as if it was filmed on a set. Eschewing much scored music in favor of first-rate sound design, the series suggests, at all moments, both the hardiness of British timber and the fragility of these men’s existence on these ships. The temperatures outside drop to 50 below, but the winds howl, the ice crunches and the wood groans.
The men, too, strain beneath the elements. The characters in summary might sound like hoary clichés or — in the case of Adam Nagaitis’s Cornelius Hickey, a gay or bisexual schemer — pernicious ones. But the cast and the writers invest them each with souls — at least until disease and malnutrition and superstition and xenophobia grind those souls to dust. Mad Men’s Jared Harris stars in what at first seems a very Jared Harris role, that of the pedigreed Brit swell whom nobody particularly likes or respects. Harris is saddled, too, with the familiar storyline of the captain who struggles with the bottle. But The Terror’s creators find a novel — literally, since it’s Simmons’s — and convincing resolution to a conflict that other series would drag out. The tightness of the miniseries format certainly helps: The Terror never sags, never spins its wheels the way the Marvel shows or The Walking Dead does. But Harris’s performance is key to The Terror’s triumph. As his Captain Crozier rises to the occasion, Harris exhibits his command and confidence while always letting us see the toll that this takes on the man. The rest of the cast is strong, too, though names and faces and mutton chops tend to blend together in the darkness. Even late in the series, I found myself saying things like, “Oh, that guy is Armitage, the Marine we’ve heard is a crack shot.” This disorientation doesn’t disrupt the storytelling, though, which is always clear and purposeful. We know just what we need to know just when we need to know it.
On occasion, The Terror flashes back to London, to Crozier and Franklin’s lives before this expedition. These respites flesh out the characters but also offer good scenes to actresses, something that’s in shorter supply on these ships even than fresh meat. In the main timeline, Nive Nielsen weaves in and out of the story as Lady Silence, a young Inuit woman who enters the Brits’ custody. Some of the crew is convinced, unreasonably, that she must be behind the monster’s attacks — that they’re all at threat of some native deviltry. Both the novel and series suggest that, actually, the men would have been much better off learning from rather than pillorying her. She’s the only one on the boats who knows how truly to live at the world’s end. A character utters the word "hubris" in the pilot, and it hangs over the rest of the series — a diagnosis, a rebuke and a lesson.
The Terror lives up to its name in more ways than one, but it’s never more powerful than when depicting this truth: These men — all men — would live better if they could find it in themselves to consider the world through someone else’s perspective.