What's This?Cheer up, Emma, at least the book's still good
It's now clear that Hollywood made a hot mess of The Circle. The Emma Watson-Tom Hanks thriller is currently languishing at 17% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes; worse, it managed an embarrassing 3rd place ranking in its opening weekend box office.
Given that astounding vote of no confidence, you might be tempted to skip the Dave Eggers novel of the same name (on which the movie is based) if you haven't read it already.
That, however, would be a mistake. A better conclusion: skip the movie, pick up the novel, and remember that there are some books that should just never be filmed.
Eggers' version of the tale, published in 2013, is a different beast altogether. The movie is trying, in its own confused way, to be a dark dystopian thriller; the book is still dark, but it's more of a whimsical satire.
Nothing in The Circle (the book) is designed to hold up to a second of actual scrutiny. It's a deliberate exaggeration, the literary equivalent of fake news. Exactly like a nightmare, it has weird aspects that sound nonsensical as soon as you try to describe them to somebody else. But boy, was it scary when you were in it.
'The Circle' is a deliberate exaggeration, the literary equivalent of fake news
Mae, the Emma Watson character, is deliberately two-dimensional on the page. She's a corporate archetype you may know too well: the naive, eager up-and-comer who drinks the company Kool-Aid and quickly becomes more of a terror than her bosses. We stay with her from her first orientation in the Customer Experience department until the last vestiges of her humanity drip away.
In the movie — spoiler alert for anyone still planning to see it — Mae suddenly sees the light and screws the company over in the service of humanity and happy endings. In the book, however, there's no such redemption.
The company of the title isn't supposed to be Google or Facebook; if anything, it's every Silicon Valley company smooshed into one. Eggers didn't do research by visiting their campuses or using their products. He was aiming to represent a mood, not a moment.
That anxious mood isn't just about technology or social media. It's also about extreme notions of transparency that seem like a good idea, but go too far and threaten to upend democracy itself — hello, Wikileaks.
More than that, it's about how our work life has slowly bled into our home life; how our 9-5 steadily became an 8-7 or a 7-10. How everyone's super nice to each other and the office amenities are amazing, but the sheer number of your duties — official and "voluntary" — ramp up to the point where you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
In Eggers' bleak mirror, the 21st century workplace is a machine for creating Attention Deficit Disorder.
These are my favorite parts of the book, the ones where Mae is required to write an insane number of tweets (called "zings" in the book) after hours, to chase likes and comments, and to increase her intra-company engagement by attending literally dozens of work events on evenings and weekends.
Given this kind of exaggeration, no one could confuse the world of the book with reality, and yet we all recognize it.
For example, Mae starts the book with two screens, each carrying multiple windows of always-on information about The Circle and the world outside. The number of screens in her cubicle slowly ramps up; by the end of the book, she's manning nine screens.
If you tried to film that it would look absurd, like a Monty Python sketch. The filmmakers opted not to do so, to play up the thriller aspects of the plot instead.
But maybe if they'd opted to make this more of a dark comedy, Black Mirror style, the resulting movie would be riding high at the box office today. Memo to Hollywood: stop dumbing dystopia down.
Oh yes, and even the book's logo was better: