Cinema has been having a sci-fi literary moment. With both blockbuster film and TV adaptations of hit novels—Ready Player One, Dune, Brave New World, and, most ambitiously, The Three-Body Problem (yet to come)—and newer adaptations of short stories—Arrival, the Invisible Man, and now Spiderhead—the big and small screens are scouring the library for new source material. And not just relying on the brilliant work of Philip K. Dick.
Netflix’s Spiderhead draws from “Escape from Spiderhehead,” a short story by George Saunders, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 2010. The story is a first-person account by an imprisoned man who takes part in laboratory experiments. The experiments become increasingly sadistic as he’s forced to watch other test subjects endure painful injections known as Darkenfloxx™, which makes them temporarily endure extreme fear and suffering.
The story’s tone is in keeping with much of Saunders’ work—which often features blue-collar men and woman toiling within mostly unfeeling capitalist environments. Like his other stories, too, “Escape from Spiderhead” also features undercurrents of sincere humor beneath these mostly melancholy circumstances.
Netflix’s adaptation attempts to capture these complex tonalities, adding in an easy-listening soundtrack, to generally mixed results. The original story, structured more like a single cinematic act than an entire film, has been expanded to include more information about both the imprisoned man, Jeff, and his fellow inmates. The film also changes Jeff’s crime and relationship with those in the outside world, adding an incarcerated relationship as well. While these changes didn’t require the filmmakers to also alter the story’s ending, the writers have chosen to waive Saunders’ more tragic finale in favor of conventional Hollywood escape. (The short story’s “escape” from the Spiderhead is much less literal.)
Here’s how both properties handle the ending to the story.
How the Netflix Version Ends:
After refusing to Darkenfloxx the women he slept with, Jeff (Miles Teller) is asked to Darkenfloxx Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), his best friend and romantic partner.
Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), whom Jeff initially believes to be testing each drug individually for separate purposes—a love drug for love, a fear drug for fear, etc.—is in fact testing a separate drug, which is designed to induce absolute obedience. Before the Lizzy experiment, however, Jeff convinces Abnesti’s assistant to remove the obedience drug from his pack and outfit Abnesti instead with the drug. Jeff then uses the drug controls on Abnesti, who resists and still manages to Darkenfloxx Lizzy.
Jeff saves Lizzy in time, but Abnesti has already fled and sicked the entire prison on Jeff and Lizzy, who attempt to escape. Meanwhile, Abnesti’s assistant has notified authorities of the illegal experiments happening on the island. They arrive in time to watch Abnesti take off on a biplane. Abnesti’s pack, however, has been damaged in his altercation with Jeff, and he experiences an overload of drugs, causing him to crash into the island’s mountain.
Jeff and Lizzy manage to escape by boat.
Before their escape, Jeff learns that he has already been released on parole and has been held captive at the island illegally, meaning once he escapes, he can presumably return to his life without fear of capture. The same applies to Lizzy.
How the Short Story Ends
Much of the film diverges from the short story. Jeff does not kill his girlfriend and buddy in a car accident. Instead, he kills his buddy with a brick while they were fighting. Jeff has no romantic relationship in or outside the prison (so there is no Lizzy); he calls his mom when given the opportunity to use the phone.
While many of the experiments in the story are similar to the film, we don’t learn anything about Abnesti or the company. The obedience drug is used in the story, but it is not the primary purpose of the experiments. (The experiments are more focused on developing a love drug.)
As in the film, the first forced Darkenfloxx drip for one of Jeff’s sexual partners ends in her death. The final scene of the story, however, involves a second forced Darkenfloxx—but with another sexual partner, not some romantic interest. Jeff refuses. Abnesti then leaves the room in order to obtain permission to use the obedience drug on Jeff. Instead of allowing himself to Darkenfloxx another woman, Jeff discovers controls to his pack and throws it down a nearby vent. His pack breaks, releasing all the drugs simultaneously, including his own Darkenfloxx. The narrator then describes his final ascent.
“From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”
We’re made to believe that Jeff escapes Spiderhead through suicide.
Will There Be a Spiderhead 2?
By not killing Jeff, the filmmakers have left open the possibility of a sequel. Still, there’s no word yet on whether there will be a Spiderhead 2. Netflix will likely wait for viewership numbers to come flowing in like a broken Darkenfloxx vile.
We’ll keep this story updated should anything change.
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