The Circle (2017)

Emma Watson struggles against the surveillance state in shockingly bad adaptation The Circle

Director: James Ponsoldt

Cast: Mae Holland (Emma Watson), Tom Hanks (Eamon Bailey), John Boyega (Ty Lafitte/Kalden), Karen Gillan (Annie Allerton), Ellar Coltrane (Mercer), Patton Oswalt (Tom Stenton), Bill Paxton (Vinnie Holland), Glenne Headly (Bonnie Holland)

Is there anything sadder than seeing a book you thought was fantastic get totally screwed up by film producers? Worst of all, Dave Eggers, the book’s author, even gets a screenwriting credit here. I hope to God his contribution was a rejected earlier draft, rather than the bland, aimless drivel on display here. It would be too depressing to think he gutted his own work and then mutilated its corpse.

Mae (Emma Watson) is thrilled to land a job at The Circle, an all-powerful, Google-style corporation with a virtual monopoly over the internet. However, she discovers while she works at the Circle that there are (of course!) dark secrets at the heart of the company, and that its charismatic CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) may not be all that he seems.

Imagine an adaptation of 1984 at the end of which Winston Smith defeats Big Brother but decides there are positive sides to living under a dictatorship, so carries on doing so. That’s exactly as ballsed-up as this total misreading of Egger’s gripping critique of our internet age. In this terrible adaptation, the novel is neutered beyond recognition into just another bland “Big Corporations Acting All Corporation-y” nonsense. The film is pretty much exactly as awful as the book is brilliant.

Where did it all go so completely and utterly wrong? Did they not understand the book? The novel is not only a critique of the pervasive power of its shady Google-like organisation. It’s also a savage attack on our own tweeting, social media obsessed world – the sort of world where private actions are theft as they rob everyone else from experiencing them vicariously through tweets, photos and posts. It’s this part of the story the film completely (and almost wilfully) misses the point of.

They seem terrified at the thought that the social media Twitteratti might take against the film if it too openly attacks the actual users of systems like this, with their (at times) shallow, demanding and entitled pushing of their own opinions, and intrusions into others’ lives. Instead the film gives a complete pass to all the users of the systems, while attacking the corporation providing them. So we get the bizarre set up of a film that seems to say it’s totally fine for normal people to record everything and push it all onto the internet, turning their world into a judgemental surveillance state, but it’s evil for a corporation to create the devices they use to do it.

Even the film’s criticism of corporations isn’t very clear, largely because we never get a sense of the Circle’s power and its hunger for getting more and more control. The film throws away its involvement in politics and its control over everyday lives. Perhaps because it knows so many of the viewership love gadgets, there is no exploration of the creepy, controlling aspect of the many tracking and recording devices the Circlers wear throughout the film, as there is in the novel. Instead the target is the shady business people at the top (not that we learn anything about what they want) because everyone hates businessmen don’t they? Nice easy target. I can tweet my loathing of them very easily.

It’s a film devoid of any challenge. A character’s suicide from the book is changed to an accidental death. The more vulnerable and desperate of the characters from the book have been deleted. The obsessive self-definition the Circlers gain from what other people tweet about them is downplayed. The ending of the film completely inverts the novel, and leaves us with a bizarre final image of our hero kayaking on the lake, but warmly smiling at the drones watching her, even after she has destroyed the “villains” who run them. It makes no sense whatsoever. My jaw literally dropped when this happened by the way.

Mae is a character who now has no consistency. Her growing obsession with the power of social media – and the destructive effect it has on her actual human relationships – is completely ignored. It’s the key part of her character from the book, and its removed here to try her as traditionally ‘likeable’ as possible. An anti-hero becomes a flat out hero. The film shows the impact of actions she carries out in the book – particularly on Annie – but removes these actions from the film. Why do people slip into depression or depart from the film? Who knows. Left with nothing to work with from the original book, Emma Watson gives a bland and forgettable performance. No one else really makes an impact, playing dull, neutered versions of the characters from the source material, devoid of depth or interest.

The Circle might be one of the worst literary adaptations I’ve ever seen. It guts the original book and removes any of the most challenging and interesting content. It’s terrified of criticising in any way anyone who might be watching. It’s a satire on the social media age that has no satire in it, and is desperate not to talk about social media. Worst of all it will discourage people from reading the original novel. In the words of the modern age: #uttershit.

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