Hollywood has long looked to The New Yorker for memorable stories and characters: the gay cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the eccentric orchid thief in “Adaptation,” the harried writers and editors in “The French Dispatch.” On Friday, Netflix released the latest film inspired by the pages of the magazine: “Spiderhead,” adapted from a short story by the longtime contributor George Saunders.
In “Escape from Spiderhead,” the 2010 story on which the movie is based, inmates at a prison undergo a cruel but intriguing series of experiments. Monitored by a warden and drug developer named Abnesti, the inmates receive chemical infusions that alter their behavior—compounds that make them more talkative, more sexual, and, sometimes, prone to dark reactions. Participation is nominally voluntary; Abnesti’s human guinea pigs have signed up for the drug trials because Spiderhead offers better living conditions than other detention facilities (if, that is, you don’t factor in the drug experiments). An avatar of the prison-industrial complex, Abnesti masks the coercive nature of his project with exaggerated bonhomie and occasional corporate-speak, enthusing after one grim experiment, “ProtComm’s going to be like, ‘Wow, Utica’s really leading the pack in terms of providing some mind-blowing new data.’ ” Readers may laugh at Saunders’s satirical names for Abnesti’s pharmaceutical innovations—Verbaluce™, to stimulate conversation; Vivistif™, for male sexual performance—but they’ll shudder at the inmates’ psychotropic ordeals. A steady stream of surprises carries readers to the poignant, haunting ending. “More and more these days,” Saunders told Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, when “Escape from Spiderhead” was first published, “what I find myself doing in my stories is making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed. . . . Who stays standing?”
For the movie version, Netflix relocated the action to an unnamed setting that looks like Australia—the home of its lead actor, Chris Hemsworth, who plays Abnesti with an American accent and a menacing smirk. Shot in the country’s northeast during the pandemic, the film co-stars Miles Teller, who is currently appearing in theatres in “Top Gun: Maverick,” as the prisoner who narrates Saunders’s story, and Jurnee Smollett, an Emmy nominee for “Lovecraft Country,” in a role that has been added for the film. Joseph Kosinski, who directed Teller in the “Top Gun” sequel, helmed the production, which was adapted by the “Deadpool” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. The film stays strikingly faithful to the source material in some places, injecting dialogue verbatim from Saunders’s story. But it’s not a spoiler to say that the script diverges widely in other areas, changing characters’ backstories in ways that alter the moral makeup of the tale. The ending differs completely from Saunders’s version—another reason to read and re-read the New Yorker original.
Saunders, who began writing for the magazine in 1992, was named a National Book Award finalist for “Tenth of December,” the short-story collection in which “Escape from Spiderhead” was later published. (In a brief visual joke, the movie shows one of the inmates reading it.) “Spiderhead” is the first feature film inspired by Saunders’s writing, which Treisman has described as “funny, antic, and often heartbreaking.” That’s an apt characterization of “Escape from Spiderhead,” which appears below, along with a selection of Saunders’s other work for the magazine.