When I first read The Circle by Dave Eggers, I enjoyed it.
It was a bit heavy-handed in terms of its (already overdone) message of how awful social media is and the monopoly companies like Google and Facebook have over people in a society so excited about embracing technology it doesn’t always stop to consider the consequences. However, for all its flaws, I did enjoy it. There was a palpable insidiousness about the Circle that was gut-clenching as the protagonist Mae slowly but surely succumbed to its enticing grasp, even as she saw her friends’ lives fall apart because of it.
I got that twisting feeling you get as you watch someone make a terrible mistake knowing you can’t do anything to stop them. For that reason alone, I liked the book.
But I felt that, although that aspect was well done and I liked the premise, the book didn’t live up to its potential.
I feel much the same way about the film.
I definitely like the premise of both the book and the film. They look at humanity’s relationship with technology – how it brings out the best and the worst in us. They explore the difference between privacy and secrecy, omissions and lies. They examine the place of personal information in the age of constant sharing.
And that’s an interesting premise that can make for gripping and thought-provoking fiction when well crafted.
I think that both the book and the film are okay, really, but that there are much better examples of media that explore these themes.
I think that the insidious nature of the Circle – effectively my favourite thing about the book – was not done nearly as well in the film. I think that if the film had been stronger in other aspects then this wouldn’t be as much of a disappointment. But this sense of unease is very much the point of the original story and I felt like it fell short in so many places in the film adaptation.
Reading the book, which was far from perfect in its execution if I’m honest, I nonetheless got a clear 1984-esque message.
You see Mae take logical step after logical step into a system that is clearly brainwashing her. One of her oldest friends ends up dead because of it, specifically her relationship with it. Another of her close friends ends up a broken mess of her former successful self, and yet Mae’s suggestion is to embrace it further, like advising someone in an abusive relationship to be more loving towards their abuser and then everything will get better.
Mae’s submission to the Circle is so sickening because it is so understandable. She is experiencing a career she loves, a sense of popularity and of purpose for the first time in her life. Of course she likes the Circle. Of course she thinks that, if only everyone were as compliant and well-behaved as she was, then everything would be fine.
If you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to want privacy.
If you’re well behaved, you have no reason to fear punishment.
Mae has the opportunity to disrupt the Circle’s chokehold through her secret relationship with Kalden. For a long time, it looks like she is going to, that she sees the Circle for the friendly-faced tyrant it really is.
And then she doesn’t. She turns everything over to the Circle.
That’s the moment when the book really gives you a dark feeling in your stomach, and it’s all because you empathise with Mae’s decision. You wanted her to resist, but you get why she didn’t.
Maybe it’s because you can’t be entirely sure that you wouldn’t do the same thing.
A lot of that is missing in the film.
For a start, Mae’s internal conflict is all but gone. For the vast majority of the film, she floats through the path laid out for her by the Circle, quite happily going along with everything the company’s CEOs want her to. She very rarely pauses to think about what she is doing, how she is compromising her values.
This is also the case in the book, but there is at least a little introspection. The closest the film gets to seeing Mae contemplate the truth of the Circle is when another character screams it bluntly into her face. And she promptly ignores them.
This also makes the central themes of the film seem very heavy-handed. They’re not woven into the story. They’re yelled at you, by characters that aren’t especially well crafted.
I feel like this would be less of an issue if the secondary characters (and, to some extent, even Mae herself) were better fleshed out. While the novel didn’t exactly give them the most exciting histories and motivations in the world, they at least had histories and motivations. In the film, most of the characters feel very stripped back and two-dimensional.
Mercer is no longer the rational, understated man of the book. In the film, he seems to be overreacting because everything happens so quickly and then his character abuptly disappears. The tragedy of his death seems ridiculous and unnecessary rather than sad because it feels like it came out of nowhere.
Similarly, Annie’s decline is rather unexpected. She goes from being a high-flying businesswoman to a complete mess almost overnight, suddenly resentful of her friend and aggressive towards the company that made her – and there’s no real reason for it. In the book, she learns something about her family’s past that she doesn’t think the general public will forgive. But she has already made a big deal about being the first case study for a new public project, so backing out would ruin her career. She’s backed into a corner where, either way, she feels like she has no future, because of the Circle’s insistence on depriving her of her privacy.
In the film, Annie was just being a bitch to Mae all of a sudden for no reason. It is sort of passed off as a combination of stress and jealousy, but it’s not very convincing. It felt very unrealistic that she would start showing up to important meetings with the CEOs of the biggest company on the planet wearing a dirty old hoodie no matter how depressed she was.
This sort of heavy-handed coding feels unnecessary, and almost patronising to the viewer. I could’ve figured out that Annie wasn’t having a great time if her clothes were wrinkled, hair was unwashed and make-up sloppy, if they’d drawn attention to it in the right way. Instead, she has an emotional outburst criticising the company in front of everyone, looking scruffy and unclean. It felt exaggerated to the point that it shakes you out of the story.
The way that Annie’s relationship with Mae changes from book to film also sucks a lot of the impact of her story out of it. In the book, they have a pleasant chat, make up and then get on with their lives – Annie to a retreat in the country to recover and Mae back to the Circle. All is forgiven, despite everything. In the book, Annie’s life is a mess because of the Circle and Mae refuses to acknowledge the Circle’s responsibility. It is painful and Annie is distraught and Mae is oblivious.
Equally, I felt that the characters of Tom and Eamon, two of the co-founders of the Circle, were not especially well fleshed out in the film.
If they were better written, the sense of the Circle’s dark side might have been clearer. As it is, you catch only fleeting glimpses of it, but if you’re not familiar with the book, I wouldn’t be surprised if you missed them. The only real indication you get that Tom and Eamon are the villains of the story is at the very end, when they act visibly enraged at the prospect of ‘going transparent’, something they’ve been marketing to the world as a force for good.
Their veneer of charm is so thorough throughout the film that, when placed against things like Mercer’s paranoia, you’re happy to believe them. They seem to be nice enough guys. Like Mae, they may even believe that they are a force for good.
I think that the character change that I found most noticeable was the complete lack of Mae’s romantic relationships.
In the book, she is in two sexual relationships.
One is with a boring Circle employee named Francis, who does as he’s told and is quite happy to accept the Circle’s word as law. He evidently doesn’t care very much about her. Early on in their relationship, he secretly films her while they are in bed and posts it online. He argues his way out of trouble when she confronts him about the invasion of her privacy. Although his arguments do not persuade her, Mae eventually gives in and continues to see him for the sake of an easy life. She does not enjoy the sexual aspects of their relationship but gives him high reviews when he asks for feedback so as not to hurt his feelings.
Her other relationship is with Kalden, who is later revealed to be Ty, the mysterious third co-founder of the Circle. It is completely secret, as opposed to the all too public state of her relationship with Francis. It is passionate and exciting and Mae is thrilled by their private trysts.
The two relationships act as a great parallel for Mae’s primary story, drawing comparisons between her personal and professional lives. Francis represents the Circle, convincing her to relax her boundaries without giving her anything in return, but seemingly harmless and easy to maintain a relationship with while gradually he infringes more and more on her life. Kalden represents resistance to the Circle; being with him is exciting and worthwhile, but there is a difficult journey ahead if she chooses him. One clearly makes her happy and gives her a sense of fulfillment, while the other is monotonous and uncomfortable, but easy once she learns to give up arguing.
In the end, in both her relationship and her moral dilemma, she opts for easy submission to something that she has no real passion for.
I understand – I think – why they chose not to include Mae’s relationships in the film. They cut the character of Francis out completely, as well as removing Ty’s alter-ego Kalden, instead having him not tell her his name until their third or fourth meeting. At no time does Mae show a romantic or sexual interest in anyone. The film – at almost two hours long – already does not have enough time to fully flesh out all the characters, themes and ideas that it evidently wanted to. Adding in a romantic subplot would only have rushed everything even more than it already is.
But I did like the way that the book offered up a second metaphor for Mae’s internal conflict. By removing it from the film, it makes Mae’s story all the murkier.
It also didn’t help that the role of Kalden/Ty was so vastly reduced. I got the impression that if I didn’t already know the story having read the book in advanced, I wouldn’t know very much at all about Ty’s motivations or actions.
I think that all of this massively reduced the impact of the ending.
In fact, I found the ending a little confusing – although this may be because I have read the book, in which the ending is quite different.
In the book, Mae and Ty spend a lot of time conspiring to bring down the Circle, only for Mae to turn Ty in to Tom and Eamon in the end so that the Circle may thrive and Ty, the only person with a hope of toppling it, is shut away from attempting to do so again.
In the film, Mae and Ty spend a lot less time together. There is a brief allusion to a conspiracy to bring the Circle down very close to the end, but not a lot of detail about what they’re planning. Mae then invites Tom and Eamon to become transparent, as she is, to be an example to the rest of the world and be completely honest about their daily dealings.
They are furious about this, as if she has used the Circle itself to take the Circle down. If this had had the impact I think the creators wanted, then it could have been a really good way to end to the film.
However, you don’t see the consequences of this. You don’t get the same dystopian sense of a voluntary Big Brother that you do in the book. You see everyone just living happily ever after, suddenly only half-aware of the cameras all around them, the constant stream of information now a blur of white noise, as if there really weren’t any consequences at all.
If anything happened to Tom and Eamon, you don’t see it. The Circle definitely hasn’t been damaged by Mae’s actions. Evidently it is still thriving, as there are still cameras everywhere, watching and recording.
This makes the ending very unsatisfying because it doesn’t feel like an ending.
I’m not sure what Mae has achieved. She hasn’t taken down the Circle or given Ty in. It might have made sense if she’d used the Circle to destroy the Circle, by exposing Tom and Eamon to the world. But the fact that the Circle survived showed that she achieved exactly nothing out of her entire experience. She rebelled and succumbed at the same time and nothing happened.
I have one final criticism of the film that is something of an aside, but that I think matters. Mae’s father has multiple sclerosis and the Circle’s invasive method of observation, in an attempt to help monitor him and ease his discomfort, is a solid subplot in both the book and the film. While Bill Paxton did a commendable enough job of playing the part, I think this would’ve been an opportunity to provide work for a disabled actor that was not taken.
This doesn’t have all that much to do with the story, or the comparison between the story in its two different formats, but I think it is worth commenting on as the film industry has little enough opportunites for disabled actors without non-disabled people taking up space that is rightfully theirs. I understand that not all disabled characters can be played by disabled actors. For instance, I think that casting an actor with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything would have limited how much of his story they could tell. Eddie Redmayne could show how the condition changed his body over time. Someone midway through those changes could not. But this is a very different case. Mae’s father isn’t affected visibly by his MS in this film. This role easily could have been played by – and, I think, should have been played by – a disabled actor.
On a more positive note, I did like the way that the film incorporated social media visually on screen, with messages surrounding Mae, making her seem less alone even though nothing has changed about a scene in which she is sitting alone. It definitely gave the impression of a near-futuristic form of technology that could easily have evolved out of something like Facebook. It also developed the feeling of Mae’s community that she imagines around her, that you acknowledge but at the same time know isn’t really there, as she shuts herself in her room to talk to her global community of strangers, while she ignores her loving parents downstairs.
However, at the same time, it reminded me of the way that Black Mirror used similar animations. This feeling lingered with me for pretty much the entire film, so I couldn’t help comparing it near constantly with a show with similar themes that I think is vastly superior in almost every way.
I think it’s a shame that this film did not live up to its potential, especially given it had a stellar cast and Netflix clearly has the resources to make incredible pieces on this exact topic (see: Black Mirror season four).
I think that watching the film made me all the more aware of the book’s flaws. Which, again, is a shame, because the book had a solid foundation even if it wasn’t perfect. It could’ve been an excellent starting point for a film that could’ve taken the essence of the book and plugged some of the gaps.
Instead, I felt like it only widened those gaps, made them more obvious and made the story blurrier. I feel like the ways in which it was reminiscent of Black Mirror – a show which, frankly, got everything about technological dystopias right, in a way that was gripping and chilling and addictive – only reminded me that I could have been watching Black Mirror instead.
Ultimately, the film is enjoyable enough. You’ll probably understand it better if you’ve read the book first. But you might like it more if you haven’t. I’m not sure.
But don’t think too much into it. Black Mirror is better.