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Netflix’s ‘Spiderhead’ Sucks the Life Out of a Beautifully Weird Short Story

Read the book instead.

Chris Hemsworth as Abnesti in Spiderhead, leaning over and smiling.

As a longtime George Saunders fan, I promised myself that I wouldn’t compare Netflix’s Spiderhead, starring Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smollett, and Miles Teller, to the original Saunders story it’s based on. Saunders is one of the strangest, funniest, and most inventive writers of our time, so no film adaptation is ever going to be in the same league as the original, and a comparison feels like it just wouldn’t be fair to the filmmakers. But then I saw a character in one scene reading the real book that contains the story (Tenth of December), which struck me as a plea to remember the cultural cachet the film is latched onto, so screw it, here we go.

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The original short story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” is about a prisoner, Jeff, in a facility that tests designer drugs on incarcerated human volunteers. Jeff’s mom has paid a lot of money to get him transferred to this facility after he murdered a guy with a brick to the head, so Jeff’s happy to be here. Things go sideways, though, when Jeff is told to participate in an experiment that starts off cruel and ends up deadly. Presiding over the experiments is Abnesti, who takes orders from his superiors and passes them down to Jeff and the other inmates from his panopticon-inspired control room, nicknamed the Spiderhead.

The movie keeps the story’s basic premise, but sands off all its edges and slices away the dystopian horror and questions of free will that make it so thought-provoking. Jeff (Teller) is now convicted not of murder, but manslaughter, presumably because the audience can’t be trusted to see the humanity in a murderer. The main question the movie asks isn’t, “What kind of world would allow human beings to treat each other this way, and why does that world feel chillingly familiar?” Instead, it asks us to ponder if Abnesti (Hemsworth) has perhaps gone rogue, and whether Jeff and his love interest Lizzy (Smollet) can escape back to the safe and normal outside world.

What the filmmakers don’t understand is that the horror of the original story comes from the knowledge that the outside world is just as warped as the world of the prison. In the original, no one is coming to save Jeff, everyone up the chain of command is 100% okay with what’s happening in the prison, and even Jeff can’t imagine an alternative to a world that can turn him into a human puppet with drugs like Darkenfloxx™ and VeriTalk™. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a merciless funhouse mirror that reflects the worst of the capitalist carceral state back at us and forces us to grapple with it. Spiderhead is a formulaic, mildly entertaining thriller with some drugs thrown in.

Not that there aren’t some bright moments. If you’re wondering whether Chris Hemsworth is fantastic in Spiderhead, the answer is yes, he is. Hemsworth plays the best kind of villain—charismatic enough to draw the hero under his spell (although, again, there are drugs involved), but enough of a wildcard to keep surprising you. Whether he’s smoothly ordering subordinates to commit atrocities or giggling in the midst of a spiraling drug trip, Hemsworth makes every scene he’s in glow brighter.

There are some funny moments, too, when the characters all suddenly seem to remember that they’re in a George Saunders story, and the movie hesitantly edges toward the farcical. But those moments are so rare that they only remind you how much better the source material is.

The ending of the original short story is literally transcendent, with Jeff’s disembodied soul flying through the sky with a flock of birds while he revels in the newfound innocence of the afterlife. It is a damn weird story, one that only gets bigger and deeper when you mull it over afterwards. Spiderhead, on the other hand, leaves you feeling like there must have been a whole layer of movie that you somehow missed. Surely there’s more to it than what you just watched? But no, there isn’t. The fact that we apparently can’t be trusted to grasp what the original story was so frantically trying to tell us, and have to be spoon-fed this monochrome pap instead, might be the scariest thing about it.

Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix.

(image: Netflix)

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Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href=""></a>

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