The New Yorker Story “Escape from Spiderhead” Is Now a Netflix Movie Starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller – The New Yorker

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The Journey of “Escape from Spiderhead” to Netflix

Chris Hemsworth as Abnesti Miles Teller as Jeff and Mark Paguio as Verlaine in “Spiderhead.”

Chris Hemsworth (far left) and Miles Teller (center) in “Spiderhead.”Photograph courtesy Netflix

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?”

Nathan Jones in “Spiderhead.”Photograph courtesy Netflix

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.

George Saunders.Photograph by Chloe Aftel / Contour / Getty 

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.

To receive Saunders’s future writing in The New Yorker, and to enjoy the magazine’s coverage of new movies and classic cinema, sign up for our Books & Fiction and Movie Club newsletters.


Blurry illustrations in a colorful 3x3 grid of people fighting each other.
“I was sad that love could feel so real and the next minute be gone, and all because of something Abnesti was doing.”

Pants on a clothesline outdoors in the snow.
“Wasn’t overcoming this feeling of fear what truly distinguished the brave?”

A figure climbing a ladder inside the silhouette of a human head.
“ ‘I guess one never realizes how little one wants to be kicked to death until one hears a crowd doing that exact same thing to someone nearby,’ I say.”

“Hii” (detail) Michael Bevilacqua/Deitch Projects
“If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor!”

Trump’s energy flows out of him, as if channelled in thousands of micro wires, and enters the minds of his followers.
At the candidate’s rallies, a new understanding of America emerges.

Image may contain: Musical Instrument, Windchime, Chime, Human, and Person

Little St. Don said, “When alive, how did Jesus do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.”

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