Movie adaptation of satirical novel does not come full circle

Julia Jacoby

photo courtesy of STX Films
photo courtesy of STX Films

“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” said Mercer, the seemingly paranoid ex-boyfriend of protagonist Mae Holland in Dave Eggers’ satirical novel, “The Circle.” The purpose of this quote and, to a larger extent, the novel, is to portray an exaggerated dystopia under the tyranny of social media where privacy has become a nightmare of the past. In this world, secrecy is the equivalent of robbery, and all information and experiences are possessions to which everyone is the heir apparent. This novel begs the questions: Who gets to control the flow of information? What are the dangers of a watched society? In a world where everyone’s information is readily accessible, to what extent are people entitled to the secrets of others?

These are the exact questions the cinematic adaptation of the novel completely undermines. While reading “The Circle,” the only reason I didn’t finish the entire book in one sitting was because I had to stop and take AP-Comp mandated annotations. Walking into the theater for the film adaptation, I was excited to see how the book would translate into a movie, but 110 minutes later, I found myself both frustrated and disappointed.

The ambition in this attempt at a transformation of a literary satire into a comparable movie is admirable. However, the movie is sloppily organized, and overlooks the nuances that are so crucial to the progression of the novel. Lacking the direct insight into a character’s thoughts that books are able to capture, the movie needed to incorporate a human element into its characters to maximize the emotional impact on the audience. While the movie did show us some of the potential detriments of a world where everyone can see everything—a broadcasted handjob between Mae’s mother and sick father, a man driven off of a cliff—these are portrayed so superficially and without explanation that they provoke little to no emotional reaction. This prevents the movie from legitimizing the hazards about which it’s trying to warn us by showing us the potential chaos of a world that condemns privacy.

Instead, Emma Watson’s performance of Mae, the young go-getter who lands a low-level job at The Circle, a company modeled after large technology companies like Facebook and Google, is flat and uninspired. Watson’s acting gives her character little depth or personality besides her blatant naivete and strange affinity for kayaking. This makes Mae’s indoctrination into the dystopian ideals of The Circle almost entirely indiscernible to the audience. In the book, Mae is the figurehead for the destructive philosophies of The Circle, the pinnacle of which being “transparency,” by wearing a camera at all times for the viewing pleasure of millions. The movie fails to capture the way Mae willingly submerges herself into The Circle.

The messy progression of the movie’s plot is especially disappointing considering Eggers collaborated with the director, James Ponsoldt, on the screenplay. The movie is fragmented, randomly introducing characters and splicing scenes together. For example, Ty, the brilliant mind behind The Circle’s revolutionary technology, is not Mae’s enigmatic love interest as described in the novel. In the movie, the relationship between the two is never given any depth, only explaining their attraction through clichéd scenes of Mae looking dreamily out of a window and Ty telling Mae that “From the minute I met you, I knew I could trust you.” Ty’s character, played by John Boyega, is reconfigured so his purpose in the narrative is unclear. He randomly appears to warn Mae of The Circle’s power on their second encounter (she does not even know his name at this point), which was dumbfounding and nonsensical, considering that main thematic crises don’t usually happen so early in movies.

Not only is the movie’s message blurry, but it’s also oversimplified and at times contradictory. In one scene, Mae is pledging “transparency” and using it to expose the wrongdoings of the company’s other two leaders, and in the next, she is smiling at a drone watching her as she kayaks. In the novel, Mae is not our heroine, but instead a symbol of the control that technology has over our lives. In the movie, we see a glimpse of rebellion in Mae, then immediately after, total submission to The Circle.  

The movie transitions from scene to scene so hastily that when the credits rolled, I found myself wondering how I spent nearly two hours in the theater while still feeling like the movie was incomplete. However, I must admit the movie was successful ideologically in one way: after watching, I disagree with motto of The Circle in that maybe we don’t need to see just everything.