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Spiderhead’s Adaptation Is All Style but No Substance

Spiderhead smoothes away all the sharp moments from its source material, choosing to rely on synth-pop style and an overly sweet romance instead.

The following contains spoilers for Spiderhead, currently streaming on Netflix.

Spiderhead informs viewers of its roots right away, with opening credits reading “based on the short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead‘ by George Saunders.” It’s an unusual origin for a big-budget film with names like Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller, and the story’s DNA gets felt throughout the first few scenes, establishing an unusual premise. Prisoners of the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center apply to get admitted to the facility and are offered extremely high-quality living conditions. There are no guards or even locked doors at the facility, and only one catch: inmates have to participate in the testing of bizarre, mind-altering chemical compounds while they serve out their sentences.

That premise alone isn’t too dissimilar from the original short story, and the plot of the first few scenes isn’t, either. Jeff, a prisoner serving time for vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk, tests a compound that causes him to feel love and lust for Heather, an inmate he’s never met. Hemsworth’s character, Steve Abnesti, forces Jeff to participate in further trials involving the drug, culminating in him getting asked to choose between Heather and Rachel, another woman he had slept with while under the influence of the drug. The one he chooses will get administered Darkenfloxx, a drug that causes hellish levels of pain and discomfort.

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Jeff eventually does so, but the levels of nightmarish torment involved causes Heather to commit suicide. And it’s at this moment where the paths of Spiderhead the story and Spiderhead the movie really start to diverge. In Escape from Spiderhead, Abnesti tells Jeff he’ll have to do the same to Rachel for the sake of experimental symmetry. Jeff refuses, unwilling to kill anyone. The crime he’s serving time for in the first place is murder, a thoughtless incident where he dashed open the brains of another youth with a brick. He’s repentant for the loss of life he caused and is unwilling to kill again, especially after inadvertently doing the same to Heather.

Abnesti has a drug that can force Jeff to comply, but before he can use it, Jeff steals the remote and self-administers a lethal dose of Darkenfloxx, preserving Rachel’s life at the cost of his own. That absolute refusal to kill is the story’s centerpiece, and the heartrendingly poetic narration Jeff gives as he passes away closes out the tale on a note of bittersweet triumph. Spiderhead the film quashes all hopes of such an ending by introducing a singularly important character: Lizzie.

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Lizzie is Jeff’s love interest and fellow inmate throughout the film, and instead of being asked to administer Darkenfloxx to Rachel, Jeff gets asked to dose Lizzie. He refuses to do so but also escapes alongside her. The story pivots to focusing on the romantic bond between the two instead of Jeff’s own moral conviction. The important part of Escape from Spiderhead‘s finale was that Jeff wouldn’t kill anyone. Instead, it’s about how not even the obedience drug can transcend the love Jeff feels for Lizzie in particular. The film takes a universal moral principle and cheapens it with “the power of love.”

Spiderhead is, at first glance, an improvement on its source material. Its story is simpler and easier to parse than its predecessor. Its ’80s synth-pop and slick visuals also draw the audience in and make for an entertaining spectacle. But Escape from Spiderhead had a specific message about what it means to take another life and how Jeff found catharsis in his refusal to do so. His ending narration is a beautiful metaphor, comparing the feeling of his own death to soaring through the sky as a bird. He is, as he says in his own words, “briefly unlimited.” Crowbarring in a happy ending brings him crashing back down to earth — turning a sad but beautiful story into something utterly unremarkable.

To see this adaptation fall short, Spiderhead is streaming now on Netflix.

Alexander Sowa is a journalist, poet and writer, living in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada. Armed with a passion for television and movies, he works as a news/features writer at Comic Book Resources. He enjoys superheroes, slam poetry, and Magic: The Gathering. You can find him on Twitter at @alexpaulsowa

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