The AMC series “The Terror” will probably be considered to be a landmark TV series. It demonstrates that a sprawling adventure story can be accomplished using three sound stages and a lot of green screen. My first impression of the series is that it represents a major improvement over the book. It closes many plot holes and gathers loose threads that Dan Simmons left hanging. The series also treats the historical figures behind the true story of the Franklin Expedition with greater respect than the novel. Franklin and the other Royal Navy officers and men who perished in an effort to explore the Northwest Passage in the 1840’s. These lost explorers are considered to be national heroes in the UK and Canada. I considered their characterization in the book to be disrespectful to their memory. The scripts for the series are much tighter and logically structured than the novel. I recommend the series but not the book upon which it was based.
One reservation I have with the AMC production is the fact that the actual Arctic explorers would have worn more layers of protective clothing than was depicted by the actors in many scenes. This is understandable because otherwise the audience couldn’t see their faces. Another nod to practicality is that if the actors had been made up or CGI enhanced to look like starving sufferers from scurvy, they would have become unrecognizable.
Below is the review of the novel that I wrote for my local library system.
“The Terror”, a novel by Dan Simmons is without equivocation, the single most tedious and dreadful book that I have ever followed down to the bitter end. It is based on the true story of the most harrowing catastrophe in the history of world exploration. This is of course the infamous Franklin Expedition of the 1840’s when two Royal Navy ships “Erebus” and “Terror” were dispatched into uncharted waters in what is today the Canadian Arctic in an effort to find the elusive Northwest Passage. It was thought that two wooden ships equipped with primitive steam engines could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean between a labyrinth of islands and peninsulas that were frozen into the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean most of the year. The infamy of the Franklin Expedition is the fact that both ships vanished into the Arctic wastes and every man aboard them perished. This is not a spoiler. It is an historic fact.
The known information in this episode are strange and compelling enough to prompt the writing of a fictionalized novel based on these events. That is what I thought that I was getting when I picked up this tome. What I got instead was the equivalent of a “Twilight Zone” episode that just goes on and on and on, seemingly forever. Dan Simmons has hammered the known facts into a bizarre amalgamation of the genres of high adventure, horror and surrealism. It is as though Edgar Alan Poe wrote “Moby Dick” or Maupassant wrote “Treasure Island”.
Imagine that Captain Cook had not been killed by Hawaiians but instead by Godzilla, or that Ferdinand Magellan had been killed by King Kong. It wasn’t the Sioux and the Cheyenne who obliterated Custer and his men at the Little Big Horn. It was the work of werewolves and skin walkers. This is the sort of absurdity one is expected to swallow when the author of “The Terror” tries to tell his readers that Franklin and his men were all slain by some imaginary Eskimo bogyman.
The other dreadful feature of this novel is that the writer seems to take sadistic glee in describing the deaths of almost the entire crew one at a time in gruesome and inventive detail. The result is that the story becomes progressively more ghoulish and ghastly. This book is not so much a thriller as it is a glacially paced tedium to be endured. It took me months to get through this book. I set it down for long periods only to return in the hope that pace would pick up. Oddly enough it does toward the end when the story takes a right angle turn into the ludicrous. There is even an element thrown in on the very last pages that comes out of nowhere. It is as if Simmons ran out of ideas and just threw a few leftover buckets of gore up against the wall to see what would stick.
This book has inspired a ten-part television miniseries produced by Ridley Scott, the director of “Alien” and “Blade Runner”. It appears that the dramatists have walked back a lot of the implausible conjectures and badly bound story structure of the book to make this horror/adventure more palatable (pun intended). Think of it as John Carpenter’s “The Thing” meets “Master and Commander”.
Listening to: Sirius Radio in my Jeep
Reading: Uplift War by David Brin
Watching: Lost in Space
Playing: no time, no time
Eating: Krispy Kremes against Dr.s orders
Drinking: Coke Zero