“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.