Imagine that the movie version of 1984 had ended with Winston Smith being promised by the Party that the reign of Big Brother was through, that they would immediately hold elections to replace him, and – well done, Winston, for your patriotic rebellion! Huzzah! Now, if you’d read the novel, you’d be confused. For one thing, the mood of this proposed ending is completely different from that of the novel’s, with its promise that the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever. Secondly…Big Brother never existed except as an all-seeing eye to frighten people into obedience and subservience. There was no dictator at the core of the party; the tyranny emanated from the party itself, from the culture it created and its system of control. The movie would have missed the entire point of the book!
When the ending credits rolled for The Circle last night, its ending left me with that same conviction: the screenwriter missed the point. Dave Eggers’ novel mixed dystopia with satirical dark comedy to produce a thriller that was as mocking as it was foreboding. The movie isn’t satirical in the least, although it follows the same basic plot: enter Mae Holland, played by Emma Watson, who gets a job at the world’s biggest and most innovative tech company. Embracing its culture completely, Mae rises in the ranks while being increasingly estranged from her real-life family and friends. Repeated encounters with a mysterious man who seems to know more than anyone should bring Mae to a crisis point however, and she has to make a decision. The decision she makes seems to vary from book to movie, but the movie’s ultimate ending renders the difference moot.
Up until that point, I’d been enjoying The Circle as an illustration of the novel. When Mae is “transparent”, streaming her every waking moment, comments from her audience appear as little floating boxes off to the side. They wink in and out fairly quickly, but a quick eye or a pause button, can get some measure of the variety of the comments. In keeping with the nature of youtube comments and such, few are substantive: many, in fact, are completely self-absorbed, using Mae’s feed only to moan about their lives. The shallowness of the Circle culture is also pointed out when some outside presenters ask a group to name a historic personality; after a moment of mental paralysis, one volunteers…”Mae Holland!” That said, I don’t think the movie would be nearly as enjoyable without having read the book, because its plot is rushed, and the creeping dread of The Circle is…well, not so creeping. The mysterious figure from the book takes almost four hundred pages to reveal his identity; here, he offers it to Mae on their second meeting. His aura of mystery, Mae’s bookish anxiety to see him again to figure him out, are done away with completely: in the film he’s the guy from Star Wars, staring at his phone and condemning the Circle every time they get past the pleasantries. Similarly absent is Mae’s constant tension with her ex-boyfriend, Mercer; in the book he is a foil and a burr under the saddle, and when Mae uses him to demonstrate a program in the book, it demonstrates how corroded her own soul has become. In the movie, she and Mercer are merely disagreeable friends, and she doesn’t want to use him to test her program (basically, a crowd-sourced way to find a single person on the planet). While it’s nice to see her and Mercer getting along, it does little for the plot of the movie.
The screenplay of The Circle thus takes Eggers’ ominous view of the future of the socially networked web and turns it into a light thriller with the kind of head-in-the-clouds naivete one only ever sees on election day. Instead of prompting people to think critically about the way social networks alter their lives, it tacitly promotes life inside the glass cage — so long as meanies aren’t in charge.