Here’s How the Ending of Netflix’s Spiderhead Compares to the Short Story


Different? Yes. Worse? Also, probably yes.

Cinema has been having a sci-fi literary moment. With both blockbuster film and TV adaptations of hit novels—Ready Player One, Dune, Brave New World, and, most ambitiously, The Three-Body Problem (yet to come)—and newer adaptations of short stories—Arrival, the Invisible Man, and now Spiderhead—the big and small screens are scouring the library for new source material. And not just relying on the brilliant work of Philip K. Dick.

Netflix’s Spiderhead draws from “Escape from Spiderhead,” a short story by George Saunders, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 2010. The story is a first-person account by an imprisoned man who takes part in laboratory experiments. The experiments become increasingly sadistic as he’s forced to watch other test subjects endure painful injections known as Darkenfloxx™, which makes them temporarily endure extreme fear and suffering.

The story’s tone is in keeping with much of Saunders’ work—which often features blue-collar men and woman toiling within mostly unfeeling capitalist environments. Like his other stories, too, “Escape from Spiderhead” also features undercurrents of sincere humor beneath these mostly melancholy circumstances.

Netflix’s adaptation attempts to capture these complex tonalities, adding in an easy-listening soundtrack, to generally mixed results. The original story, structured more like a single cinematic act than an entire film, has been expanded to include more information about both the imprisoned man, Jeff, and his fellow inmates. The film also changes Jeff’s crime and relationship with those in the outside world, adding an incarcerated relationship as well. While these changes didn’t require the filmmakers to also alter the story’s ending, the writers have chosen to waive Saunders’ more tragic finale in favor of conventional Hollywood escape. (The short story’s “escape” from the Spiderhead is much less literal.)

Here’s how both properties handle the ending to the story.

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