The weak novel is now an even weaker movie!
I tend not to read contemporary fiction because, honestly, they’re usually mediocre, but I read Dave Egger’s novel The Circle because I am fascinated by the huge tech companies and the social effects all this technology is having [and: it was mediocre]. The novel presents a corporate campus that his patterned after that of Google, Facebook and Apple, and, based on working at hot-shit NYC digital agencies, as well as keeping up on articles about these workplaces, I can say that Eggers totally did his research and captured both analogies to the real politics and structure of such places, as well as the weird social vibe of such places that encourages/enforces maximum time spent at work, but also complete ideological fidelity to the mission of the company, with no room for dissent. I was at a meeting of our company to hear our CEO explain, with complete conviction, that a website that improves shopping for shoes online is actually making the world a better place and markedly improving people’s lives.
So for the first half of the novel, I was completely riveted by the accuracy with which Egger’s captures the social and workplace tones of these kinds of companies. He also expertly creates an environment of creeping paranoia and for the first half it looks like he is creating a wonderful thriller in the Ira Levin vein [Levin wrote The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby]. And the novel could have gone on to do that, but at the midpoint it takes a sharp turn that resets everything, including our impression of the main character, building to a climax that is forehead-slappingly frustrating and features an insultingly obvious metaphor while not being very satisfying at all.
So it’s already a poor choice for a movie, and with Eggers co-writing the screenplay, we know that the issues are not going to be fixed for the film, although they do ditch the hideous metaphor and change the ending completely [I’d love to know where Eggers fell on that issue]. The problem with the movie is that there are a lot of big concepts, and the movie doesn’t have enough time to explain them all, let alone let them sink in. The movie just assumes that audiences themselves will see the inherent problems in worldwide surveillance, for instance, or having your employer have access to your health records, or making political voting part of a social network. Given the complete, unquestioning adoption with which most people have embraced all things digital and “social,” and have demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t care if they give up their privacy, and don’t care that companies are monetizing their personal data, it’s an extremely long shot that they’ll care about—or think any of the issues through enough—to see what the problem is here. And of the movie isn’t trying to reach those people, then who is it trying to reach?
So it bubbles along with no suspense and barely any momentum. It keeps going as it seems like nothing is really happening, and nothing is developing. Mae [our main character] has an offline friend who is barely introduced before he’s barging in and telling her how she’s changed, although we have no way to tell. Her friend at work suddenly starts looking like hell and having a complete breakdown, for reasons that are never really explained. And while I like the idea of Tom Hanks as a charming bad guy, he’s just too charming and his character is undeveloped. The character played by John Boyega was unbelievable in the novel, and completely nonsensical here. And, much as we like her, Emma Watson really needs to take some acting lessons. She can be charming and is naturally winning, but she conveys no depth.
But in a way, who cares? Since no one is going to see it. There’s a story of how this thing got made, but I doubt very much that it had to do with demand from satisfied readers or the need to capture such an important work on film. And that lack of purpose carries through to the film, which lacks energy, passion and urgency. Not quite a bust, just mediocre, not worth any more of our time.