Chris Hemsworth plays a prison warden who experiments on prisoners using medications that change their behaviour in the movie “Spiderhead,” which is based on fiction written by George Saunders.
The homosexual cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the quirky orchid thief in “Adaptation,” and the stressed-out writers and editors in “The French Dispatch” are just a few of the iconic stories and characters that Hollywood has long looked to The New Yorker for. The newest Netflix original movie based on the pages of the magazine, “Spiderhead,” which was adapted from a short story by veteran writer George Saunders, was released on Friday.
Inmates in a prison are subjected to a harsh but fascinating set of experiments in the 2010 tale “Escape from Spiderhead,” which served as the inspiration for the film. The prisoners are administered chemicals that change their behaviour, making them chatty, more sexual, and occasionally more prone to dark reactions. They are watched over by a warden and drug inventor named Abnesti. Because Spiderhead offers better living circumstances than other detention facilities (assuming, that is, you don’t factor in the drug experiments), Abnesti’s human test subjects have agreed to participate in the drug trials. An embodiment of the prison industrial complex, Abnesti boasts after one gruesome experiment, “ProtComm’s going to be like, ‘Wow, Utica’s really leading the pack in terms of providing some mind-blowing new data.’ ” He conceals the coercive nature of his project with exaggerated goodwill and occasionally corporate-speak. The humorous names Saunders gives to Abnesti’s pharmaceutical inventions, such as VerbaluceTM for conversation stimulation and VivistifTM for male sexual performance, may make readers giggle, but the inmates’ experiences with psychotropic drugs will make them cringe. Readers are led to the emotional, eerie conclusion by a constant stream of surprises. When “Escape from Spiderhead” was initially published, Saunders remarked, “I find myself doing in my stories what I find myself doing in my fiction: constructing a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed…. Who stays standing?”
As Australia is the country where the show’s star, Chris Hemsworth, who plays Abnesti with an American accent and a threatening sneer, is from, the action was moved there for the film adaptation by Netflix. The pandemic-set movie, which was shot in the nation’s northeast, also stars Jurnee Smollett, an Emmy contender for “Lovecraft Country,” and Miles Teller, who is presently shown in theatres in “Top Gun: Maverick,” as the prisoner who tells Saunders’s story. The production was overseen by Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Miles Teller in the “Top Gun” sequel, and was adapted by “Deadpool” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. In several instances, the movie is remarkably true to the original material, using dialogue that is directly taken from Saunders’s story. It is not a spoiler, however, to reveal that the screenplay veers off in various directions, modifying character backstories in ways that change the moral tone of the story. Another reason to read and reread the New Yorker original is the entirely different ending from Saunders’s adaptation.
Saunders, who started contributing to the magazine in 1992, was a finalist for the National Book Award for “Tenth of December,” a collection of short stories that later included the story “Escape from Spiderhead.” (The movie shows one of the inmates reading it in a quick visual joke.) Saunders’ writing, which Treisman has characterised as “funny, antic, and often tragic,” served as the inspiration for “Spiderhead,” the first feature picture. That accurately describes “Escape from Spiderhead,” which is included below along with some of Saunders’ other contributions to the magazine.
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