Better Than The Book: A Look at AMC’s Adaptation of “The Terror” by Dan Simmons

On the left is the cover of "The Terror" book by Dan Simmons and the right is a promotional cover for AMC's "The Terror" featuring Jared Harris as Francis Crozier.

“The Terror” is an AMC show and book by Dan Simmons that is a fictionalized take on what happened to Franklin’s lost expedition. The fatal expedition that we’re still piecing together what happened to. 

When I went looking to read “The Terror” after having watched the AMC miniseries I was greeted by reviews on the Amazon page saying how much better the book was than the show. I then made the unfortunate mistake of reading the book.

“The Terror” book is many times more sexist, racist and homophobic than the AMC adaptation. It is particularly fetishistic towards the indigenous woman character as Dimmons seems to enjoy writing about them nude. There are also two widely unnecessary sex scenes, one uncomfortable to the point of nervous laughter and one just flat out gross. 

While there are only three female character in the show, the show does a much better job of giving them agency. Silna/Lady Silence, the only woman of color, in the book is mute and never speaks, in the show she is given the ability to speak until she becomes mute of her own volition. Furthermore, the racism in the show is predominantly the racism of 1800s British sailors, the actual dealing with indigenous culture in the show is, as a whole, much less unabashedly fetishizing and creepy as comes across in the book. 

On to the homophobia. It really does take a straight man to put two gay couples in his novel and then portray them both in two very different, but still bad ways. The big problem is Cornelius Hickey. He’s a gross little man in the show too, and still gay, but in the book it goes out of the way to note that he is a pedophile and his partner is coded as developmentally disabled and therefore easy for Hickey to manipulate. In the show, a different character is his boyfriend and his crimes reduced to just murder, which was always on the plate anyway. 

The second couple is John Bridgens and Henry Peglar. Their relationship is Soft and Tender, and Dimmons still fucks it up. Bridgens is a “Good Gay” because his and Peglar’s relationship is shown as sexless, they are allowed to be tender and keep their distance stationed on separate ships. In the show, they are allowed to be tender and together. This more platonic nature of their relationship is continued in a sense in the show, but they are allowed to be together much more than they are in the book, which stresses distance as why they’re the “Good Gays.” 

I will briefly mention that I am incredibly grateful to the writers of the AMC miniseries for removing any and all traces of the Crozier/Silna relationship and also that I am very irritated with Dimmons for unnecessarily and irregularly switching tenses between chapters. 

Now “The Terror” book is incredibly focused on Francis Crozier, he’s the main character and is in the show too, though to a lesser extent. One of the major things, outside of the gross shit corrections, that the show does well is to incorporate more historical accuracy. “The Terror” was published not long after “Last Man Standing?” the Crozier biography was published and, while I don’t know if there would have been time for “Last Man Standing?” to have influenced the writing of “The Terror,” it feels like it could have. The show, on the other hand, feels more like a love letter to “James Fitzjames: Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition,” which came out several years later in 2010. In the book the character of Fitzjames is essentially a footnote, he’s there, he does things, he dies. The show gives us the backstory that Dimmons simply did not have when he wrote “The Terror,”  and y’all it’s good. 

Furthermore, the character of  John Irving is virtually unrecognizable between book and show. Again, likely because of new and ongoing research about John Irving, who does not as of yet, have his own biography. But the show again is more accurate in it’s portrayal of Irving. 

When it comes down to it, AMC’s “The Terror” is better in so many ways to the Dimmons book. If you haven’t seen either and are interested, go with the show. If you’ve seen the show and are considering reading the book, don’t. And if you’re like me and have consumed both, I’m sorry. 

If you’re interested in “The Terror” it can be streamed on Amazon and Hulu, and probably other streaming services as well. If you’re really that desperate to read the book you can find it on your own.

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3 thoughts on “Better Than The Book: A Look at AMC’s Adaptation of “The Terror” by Dan Simmons”

  1. Great comparison! From a story standpoint and general characterization, I agree AMC did the better job. I have been fascinated by Franklin’s lost expedition for some time now, it really is a stunningly intriguing part of history. After hearing so much about the novel i too was sorely let down. AMCs portrayal took the opportunity to fuse the story with more fleshed out and informed narratives. Unfortunately one of the many pitfalls of historical fiction is making it more sensational or imprint a black and white characterization on the figures portrayed, so credit to AMC for doing their best to take the very real figures into consideration.

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