An imperfect Circle

Aside from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers’s most influential book is probably his novel The Circle. When it was first released, the novel was derided by many in the tech sector for its unrealistic depiction of day-to-day life at a giant Google- or Facebook-like tech company. But in the years since, readers have responded viscerally to the sense of decaying privacy that pervades the book.

The Circle was never meant to be read as a tell-all roman á clef; Eggers obviously intended it to be a cautionary tale — a modern version of 1984 or Brave New World, only set about two weeks in the future instead of several decades. And Eggers nailed the creepiness of The Circle’s corporate culture: the forced “voluntary” participation, the demands to always be available to social media, the cheerful demand to stay in lockstep with the company’s ever-expanding goals and ambitions perfectly emulate what it means to work at Google or Facebook or, to some extent, Amazon.

The film version of The Circle — now out on DVD or, if you’re into irony as a delivery system, available to rent from your favorite streaming media platform — enjoys a few benefits that Eggers’s book did not on its release. For one thing, the mild science fiction premise of the book has now basically come true. The Circle’s founding vision of society as a panopticon is no longer a threat – it’s our daily life. And for another thing, it’s got a charismatic cast ready to sell the idea to you: Emma Watson stars as Mae, the protagonist; Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt play the founder and CEO of The Circle; Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles, plays Mae’s ailing father. This is a cast most audiences would be willing to follow anywhere, and with good reason.

But the film version of The Circle proves that the story is better off as a novel, even though Eggers himself cowrote the screenplay. The best part of The Circle is the way the digital world slowly insinuated itself into the real world. In the book, Mae would return to her desk only to find someone installing another screen to keep track of some new flow of information; in the film Mae is overwhelmed by the second screen to be added to her desk, and then she suddenly has five screens a scene or two later. The monotony of Mae’s job — she’s basically tech support — comes through in the novel but not in the film.

And the plot, which in the book develops organically and across hundreds of pages, moves way too damn fast in the film. The story feels forced and improbable as a result. John Boyega’s character floats into a few scenes, charms Mae, and then disappears to the back of a few crowd shots, glowering his disapproval from hundreds of feet away. A supporting character’s death feels unearned. Mae’s emotional development is herky-jerky and inconsistent. It’s kind of a mess.

Obviously, you should read the book instead. That said, if you’ve read the book and you’re curious, the film version of The Circle is well worth watching. Those early scenes that lampoon Silicon Valley’s chirpy brand of conformity are funny as hell, and Watson’s performance is strong throughout. Even though it’s wildly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying, it’s more thought-provoking than many of the emotionally manipulative films that wind up getting nominated for Oscars.