“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders / Spiderhead (2022)

This is the second of a very occasional series in which Rachel makes me watch a movie adaptation of a short story. In the first, I watched an adaptation of “Calm with Horses” by Colin Barrett, a morally complicated and tense masterpiece of short fiction from his collection Young Skins. The movie, Shadow of Violence, got the look and feel right, but all the moral shades of grey became black and white. That, plus the needless addition of a romantic subplot, reduced the movie to more of a standard thriller, if elevated by the acting and cinematography.

For my second assignment, I watched an adaptation of “Escape From Spiderhead” by George Saunders, a dystopian cautionary tale in the vein of Brave New World, or more recently, Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy, first published in The New Yorker and also in his collection Tenth of December. I expected that this middling short story would be adapted into a middling thriller and I wasn’t wrong. But I was surprised by how closely the film’s choices mirror those made for Shadow of Violence, starting with the needless title change to plain old “Spiderhead”. From there, just like in Shadow of Violence, we encounter morally flattened characters, an invented romantic arc, and a completely different, more palatable ending. 

Shadow of Violence was a successful adaptation because despite these annoying changes, the tone was maintained. In Spiderhead, the changes alter the whole tone of the story, from a dark but hopeful look at what it means to be human, to a straightforward thriller that verges on slapstick and schmaltz. 

I wish filmmakers would “acknowledge” that audiences can handle a little ambiguity!

The character changes are what reminded me of Shadow of Violence most of all. Calm’s Arm is a small-time criminal and former boxer with a knack for violence. Spiderhead’s Jeff is also a criminal, a prisoner who’s had his sentence shortened in exchange for his participation in increasingly dangerous experiments with mind-and-behaviour-altering drugs. In the story, we are to understand that Jeff is not a career criminal like Arm, he’s a “regular guy” who brutally murdered a friend in a moment of anger. In the movie, his backstory is significantly sanitized such that he kills his friend (and girlfriend) in a drunk driving accident. Not that that’s a great thing, but all the intent, and the moment of anger, is gone. He’s just a dumb drunk guy who gets into an (oddly hyper-realistic) car accident. Arm is similarly reduced to someone who has little agency or intent behind his (rather brutal) actions.

In fact, both Arm and Jeff have a penchant for caving heads in with blunt objects in the stories, and both are disarmed in the film adaptations. There’s no clear narrative reason for this in Spiderhead – Jeff would be in jail whether he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter or just regular manslaughter. I can only conclude that the screenwriters didn’t trust the audience to empathize with a morally grey protagonist. 

And I can only conclude that Abnesti’s role, as the mad-scientist-tech-bro-prison-warden, was greatly expanded so Spiderhead could be marketed as a Chris Hemsworth film. I suppose he’s the bigger name, despite Miles Teller being the clear lead (and ironically, Teller’s been ubiquitous since Top Gun: Maverick was released, just two weeks prior to Spiderhead – or is that just on my TikTok for your page?) Abnesti gets a backstory (daddy issues) and a masterplan (uh, something about obedience, with shades of Effective Altruism) that was entirely absent in the story.

This quote’s not in the story because everyone’s average looking in the story

Now that the lead characters are acceptably “good”, the filmmakers figured they needed a romantic arc. Neither short story is a “love story,” exactly. Arm certainly loves his son in Calm with Horses, and Escape From Spiderhead’s Jeff loves his mom, living for his weekly phone call with her, but both these familial elements are downplayed or removed in favour of an invented romantic rival for Arm, and an invented romantic interest for Jeff. Jurnee Smollett as Lizzy is another attractive and affable criminal, a Mary Sue in emo eyeliner, and the dramatic reveal of her backstory is just as sanitized as Jeff’s. 

Makeup tutorial?

Can we not relate to a male protagonist unless he’s pursuing a woman? Does every story need a romantic angle? Even the concept of love is dumbed down for the movie. In the story, Abnesti’s experimental love drug doesn’t just make the test subjects horny, it makes them fall in love, fully and completely, if temporarily. Jeff, jacked up on ED289/290 (rendered “Luvactin” in the movie, get it?), describes his feelings for an average-looking woman he’s just met:

Every utterance, every adjustment of posture bespoke the same thing: we had known each other forever, were soul mates, had met and loved in numerous preceding lifetimes, and would meet and love in many subsequent lifetimes, always with the same transcendently stupefying results.

Then there came a hard-to-describe but very real drifting-off into a number of sequential reveries that might best be described as a type of nonnarrative mind scenery, i.e., a series of vague mental images of places I had never been (a certain pine-packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, the yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees), each of which triggered a deep sentimental longing, longings that coalesced into, and were soon reduced to, one central longing, i.e., an intense longing for Heather and Heather alone.

In the movie, all we see is a couple of goofy sex scenes that are played for laughs. Passages like the one above felt slightly hokey while reading, but the movie made me long for the complexity of Jeff not only becoming afflicted with friction burns from his escapades, but going from 0 to 100 and back again emotionally, manipulated by Abnesti.

Apart from adding some spice, Lizzy also changes the trajectory of the film, because now, Jeff’s got something to live for. When Abnesti and his experiments start to go too far, as they inevitably must, Jeff has a choice to make. Without revealing too much, I suppose the ending as written is almost unfilmable. Saunders was doing his best David Foster Wallace impression, bringing “Incarnations of Burned Children” to mind, if only in a pale imitation. The film goes in a wildly different direction, and instead of ending on a horrific yet redemptive note, we end with platitudes.

Why all the changes? I never quite figured it out for Shadow of Violence. Luckily, Spiderhead’s screenwriters spelled it out for us, in one of many articles placed in various movie, business, and men’s fitness sites (funny, they must not think I’m the target market): “[the original ending] would just be too much of a downer. So we ultimately had to dive in and reverse engineer how it ends and make it feel more redemptive for Jeff.”

To be fair, the source material is pretty meagre. “Escape From Spiderhead” is a *short* short story of under 8,000 words. But I dispute the assertion that this means the screenwriters *had* to make so many changes. They even said that the story didn’t have a “beginning, middle, and end” when of course it did; it even gets into the main character’s (much darker) backstory, and provides a somewhat satisfying resolution. 

Between the flattened characters, twisted plot, and easy-to-swallow morals, watching the movie gave me an appreciation for the story that I didn’t have upon first read. At first I found Saunder’s writing a bit overdone and the ending overwrought, but after enduring the forced slapstick of the movie’s ending, I appreciate Saunder’s restraint.

Luckily, the movie has its own attractions. Like Shadow of Violence, it’s partially salvaged by the acting. Chris Hemsworth is delightfully loopy as mad scientist Abnesti while Miles Teller is entirely too handsome to play average-guy Jeff, even with a mullet (in an addition I’ll forgive the filmmakers for, a heavy-handed visual representation of Jeff’s complicity in Abnesti’s schemes ends in Jeff doing his best “out damned spot” at the sink, shirtless. It’s at 55:40 if you’re impatient.) 

You’re welcome

Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the cinematography or soundtrack; the filmmakers are very proud of their “yacht rock” song picks, but it didn’t work for me except in the opening credits (The Logical Song by Supertramp). She Blinded Me With Science is just too on the nose. The look of the movie was similarly uninspired. For example, in a scene where Jeff tries a drug that’s supposed to make everything look shiny and beautiful and new, or as Saunders puts it, as if one was “sensing the eternal in the ephemeral,” all we get to see is a bit of an aura and some oversaturated colours.  

Like Shadow of Violence did before it, Spiderhead took a fairly complex and dark story and dumbed it down until it became a typical thriller. I can’t figure out if this is more insulting to movie-goers, who apparently need protagonists to be Good, antagonists to be Bad, and endings to be Happy, or to screenwriters, who apparently lack the imagination to bring a morally grey story to the screen. I promise you, the people who enjoy these types of short stories can deal with a flawed protagonist! Some of us prefer it!

But, I suppose, if Hollywood MUST keep doing this, let’s hope they continue casting Miles Teller as the “average looking guy”. I love to laugh at the movies.

I don’t get it

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5 comments

  1. Jan Hicks

    I don’t know either story or either film, but I really enjoyed how you analysed these adaptations, Laura. And interesting that such an interventionist adaptation made you appreciate the middling George Saunders story more. I’ve only read Lincoln in the Bardo, which put me off trying anything else by him.

    I wonder whether, alongside assuming viewers couldn’t cope with morally ambiguous characters, there was an element of assuming ‘beefcake’ actors would lack the emotional range to play such characters. I don’t know Miles Teller, but I’ve seen Hemsworth in the Avengers franchise and in the Ghostbusters reboot and get the sense that he’s more than capable of taking on more challenging jobs.

    • lauratfrey

      Thanks Jan! I DNF’d Lincoln on the Bardo. Interesting theory about the casting… but then why not cast actors who have the range… not complaining, I mostly watched this for the actors if that want clear 😉. And agree they were both more than capable. I think it’s more the screenwriters!

  2. Naomi

    This sounds like a fun project. I think it would be hard to turn a short story into a movie without changing things or adding on. But the things changed and added still have to make sense to the original story. Do you know of any adaptions from short stories that have been successful?

  3. lauratfrey

    I was actually thinking of watching a Sarah Polley-directed adaptation because I bet it’d be good. Like Away From Her. Or Women Talking (I know that’s not a short story!). But yes I’m thinking for my next one I need a more successful adaptation!

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