The Circle by Dave Eggers is a really great read. I discovered it when I read an excerpt that had been published in a magazine – those few paragraphs were enough to entice me into getting the book. It’s clever and gripping, the best description I can come up with is a pre-dystopian social mindset thriller.
The story follows Mae who begins working at The Circle, a large social media corporation. The inferences and descriptions evoke similarities with Google (a campus filled with extra curricular activities) and Facebook (streamlining of social media platforms) in particular, and could be seen as a glimpse into a potential future. The whole novel could be considered as a warning for future of humanity. When Mae joins The Circle she finds herself out of her depth with the social aspects – the many virtual groups, invites to events, the expectation to share details of everything she does. We follow her as she gets to grip with those expectations and shifts her perspective. As it becomes clear the company is focusing on expansion towards The Circle knowing everything about everyone, sharing every aspects of our lives, and, importantly, The Circle becoming a Government agency – as privacy and to a degree, choice not to participate, is eroded, Mae becomes the rising star of the company. The changes that occur in her mindset are cleverly portrayed, and a really subtle illustration of immersive radicalisation.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account, I wouldn’t do it justice, and you really should read the book, but *SPOILER* towards the end of the story, Mae is exposed to some eye-opening information about The Circle and equipped to take a stance that would set in motion the wheels of change and potentially prevent the threat to privacy and liberty. It is a surprise when she doesn’t follow this through, and the final paragraphs show just how far down the rabbit hole she is- ending with her wanting to develop technology to see inside people’s minds, believing it to be unjust that someone’s thoughts and dreams are withheld from us. It’s almost chilling, and personally I was a fan of the story being a focus on Mae, rather than the larger corporation and societal implications. We don’t know if The Circle succeeds, if society is irrevocably changed, yet the book doesn’t feel incomplete.
After reading the book, I immediately wanted a film. The story naturally suits adaption and I could see how well it would play out on screen. When the film was announced and a stellar cast put together, I was pretty happy. I could entirely see Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks as Bailey was a great call, and John Boyega as Ty was a surprising but exciting decision. Some of the more minor roles are filled by equally sensible and faith giving personalities – Bill Paxton as Mae’s Dad, Karen Gillan as Annie, and Patton Oswolt as Stenton. My excitement for this film was high… and then I heard nothing. I had assumed that the film had perhaps been delayed owing to Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast commitments, but then I saw her post on Instagram about attending a press event for The Circle film. A quick bit of googling told me it had in fact been released in April this year in the US, met with bad reviews and had not UK release date. I believe I moaned on our podcast about that fact. Then recently it was released on Netflix and I got the chance to watch it and decide for myself, but having seen some of the reviews, I was apprehensive.
Most of the reviews had criticised Emma Watson’s performance, but I don’t think that was actually the issue. I think the references to her coming across as vacuous and unbelievable stemmed from two main issues;
- The story focused on a storyline of the company, rather than Mae’s development.
- The change to the ending of the story.
In the case of the former, the book has a wonderful flow, as the readers we get swept up in Mae’s use of the social technology, the apparent improvements in her situation, and as she finds her feet in The Circle. I very clearly visualised the scene where she is confused when confronted by a colleague who is deeply upset by her non-attendance at an event regarding a country she once visited, and I felt a rush of adrenaline during the period where she decides to improve her social media interaction dramatically. The film glossed over those aspects – they missed the importance of those elements for her character and the brief graphic displays of her social interactions and customer scores did not give enough depth. It made some of the later elements, in particular her suggestions during a board meeting, feel hollow whereas in the book it was a natural and well intentioned progression. For me, the film story actually completely missed the core of the novel story, and didn’t adapt well enough. It left the film feeling ill-paced and out of kilter, although it was still enjoyable.
In respect of the ending, I was bemused and disappointed. I am one of those people who wants film adaptations of books to be page for page representations, but I can appreciate the need to amend the structure or change and condense sections to fit the limited time available for the film. In the ending of the film’s story, Mae takes personal grievance with certain events and so uses her influence and tools to bring down the founders of The Circle and remake it and society. I appreciate the film makers trying to still represent the end point of Mae’s thinking in her bringing down the founders, not The Circle, but it simply does not do the story justice. She becomes so immersed, an almost cult-like-sycophant, that she ignores the warning signs and pleas of Ty to instead continue to support the founders and The Circle wholly. The ending was also shot poorly and incredibly ambiguous. In a lot of areas where the film diverged from source material, it felt that the filmmakers had been at a loss and just hoped no-one would notice.
I do think that a lot of the pacing issues stem from not being able to convey the real depth of the story in the time available. Having thought about it for a few days, the story would suit a TV series, then the depth could be given to all of the characters and story points. There would also be scope to extend the plot, deal with both Mae’s story and the wider plot around The Circle which the filmmakers appeared to want to tell, maybe even into a second series. This isn’t just me wanting a direct representation of the book, I genuinely think that format would have allowed for something more complete, compelling and full.
My final thoughts are that in the case of The Circle, the book was infinitely better and the film adaptation was a disappointment because it is a story which should have translated well. If you haven’t read the book, I seriously recommend it – don’t let the film put you off. If you have read it, let me know what you thought, and whether you’ve bothered with the film!