TV & Movies

The Spiderhead Movie Ending Is Nothing Like The Short Story It’s Based On

The source material — a story by George Saunders — is much darker.

Chris Hemsworth as Abnesti, Miles Teller as Jeff and Mark Paguio as Verlaine in 'Spiderhead.'

Director Joseph Kosinski may not be a household name, but he’s on top of Hollywood this summer with two new blockbusters: the titanic spectacle Top Gun: Maverick, currently playing in theaters, and Spiderhead, a tense sci-fi adaptation of a George Saunders short story that’s just arrived on Netflix. Spiderhead stars Miles Teller as Jeff, a man incarcerated at a prison where inmates enjoy an unusual amount of freedom and comfort — in exchange for taking part in scientific experiments run by the prison’s overlord, Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth).

In the 1990s and 2000s, Saunders earned a reputation as a sharp, satirical short story writer who often used elements of speculative fiction in his work. His fourth collection, Tenth of December, was published to widespread acclaim in 2013, and included the story “Escape from Spiderhead,” on which Spiderhead is based. The story, which first appeared in The New Yorker, is long and plot-heavy, and most of its plot twists — and large chunks of its dialogue — are directly replicated in the film. But the short story and the film diverge in important ways.

To find out how the endings of Spiderhead and “Escape from Spiderhead” compare, read more below.

How does Spiderhead end?

Spiderhead revolves around experiments Abnesti is conducting, which involve drugging the inmates at the prison. The drugs are administered through “MobiPaks” surgically attached to the inmates’ lower backs. Near the beginning of the film, Abnesti repeatedly injects Jeff and other women with a love drug and then observes them having intercourse. He later asks Jeff to pick between two women he has slept with: The one he picks will be injected with a different drug, called Darkenfloxx, that makes the user experience extreme misery and pain. Abnesti hopes that Jeff might harbor lingering feelings for one of the women, and reveal them through his choice — but Abnesti’s disappointed when Jeff refuses to pick between them. Later, Abnesti picks one of the women anyway, and forces Jeff to watch her be dosed with Darkenfloxx. Under the influence of the drug, the woman dies by suicide.

During the chaos of this incident, Jeff snoops in Abnesti’s notebook and realizes that he is the head of the company conducting the experiments — not a middle manager, as he’d presented himself to be. Jeff begins growing skeptical of the program and keeps an eye out for ways to escape. He finds one in the form of Abnesti’s increasingly disillusioned assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio), whose job includes refilling Abnesti’s own MobiPak. (Yes, Abnesti has a MobiPak, too, which he uses recreationally.) Jeff convices Verlaine to rig Abnesti’s MobiPak.

Later, Abnesti tries to dose the woman with whom Jeff is really in love — another inmate named Rachel (Jurnee Smollett) — with Darkenfloxx. In the hopes of saving her, Jeff takes advantage of Abnesti’s sabotaged MobiPak, and doses Abnesti with Darkenfloxx himself. While drugged, Abnesti confesses that his experiments were all designed as an effort to perfect a single drug, which would make users totally obedient — obedient enough to torture their loved ones with Darkenfloxx, if ordered to.

Jeff and Rachel escape the compound via boat, and Abnesti tries to do the same via plane, but he crashes before he can get very far. Verlaine returns with the police to shut down the operation.

How is Saunders’ short story different from the film?

Like the film Spiderhead, the short story revolves around Abnesti trying out various compounds on Jeff, and Abnesti subsequently asking Jeff to dose one of two women he’d slept with. Spiderhead adds Jeff and Rachel’s romance, however — Rachel doesn’t exist in the story — and also adds Abnesti’s abuse of the chemicals he’s invented.

The short story, though lengthy, is sparer and bleaker than the film. For one, it doesn’t take place on a tropical, secluded island, but in upstate New York. Saunders’ Jeff is a sympathetic but somewhat hapless figure, whereas Teller’s Jeff is an old-fashioned blockbuster hero whose gumption saves him in the end. Jeff’s background is also revised to be more sympathetic in the film: In Spiderhead, Jeff accidentally killed his best friend and his wife in a drunk driving accident, whereas in the story, Jeff murders another teenager in a fight by hitting him over the head with a brick in a moment of rage. Abnesti, meanwhile, isn’t on a quest for a single obedience drug in Saunders’ story: He’s a businessman, always looking for a new marketing hook for his myriad innovations.

The conclusion of the story also diverges from the film. After one of his former sexual partners dies while on Darkenfloxx, Jeff refuses to participate in an experiment in which the second partner will be given Darkenfloxx as well. Abnesti and Verlaine leave to secure consent to dose Jeff with an obedience drug; while they are gone, Jeff doses himself with Darkenfloxx using a remote Verlaine accidentally left behind. The dosage leads to his death but, for the time being at least, spares the other woman from having to receive the drug.

In other words, Saunders’ story ultimately hinges on a single moral choice: whether to inflict pain on another person, or to suffer yourself. Its conclusion provides resolution only for Jeff, and that resolution comes in the darkest of ways. The film adaptation expands the story to turn it into a slick, entertaining blockbuster, but in doing so, it loses track of the story’s profound philosophical core.