Watching the Watchers

Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (2013) hits the big screen in James Ponsoldt’s star-studded adaptation. Is it worth watching?

When I first heard that a screen adaptation of Dave Eggers’ The Circle was in the making, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was (still am) totally fascinated by the novel—so fascinated, in fact, that I made it the subject of my graduate project last year. When later, news about the cast broke and it was confirmed that Emma Watson and Tom Hanks had signed up as leads, with, among others, Karen Gillan (who I loved in Doctor Who) and John Boyega (one of the exciting new faces in the Star Wars universe) in supporting roles, I couldn’t wait to see the final result.

Then, the first reviews came in and gave me a proper shock (and the film a proper beating). In order not to be prejudiced and have my experience spoiled, I generally don’t tend to read (m)any reviews before watching a film or reading a book. But with The Circle, even a quick glimpse at the headlines (calling the film, for instance, a “cinematic dead link”, “a laughable tech thriller”, or, simply, “a complete fiasco of a movie”) was quite enough to fill me with a darker sense of anticipation. Now, months later, The Circle finally opened in German theaters and I got to see it myself. So, how did it turn out?

Eggers’ The Circle is a slightly satirical dystopia dealing with a fictitious Californian tech company called, no surprise there, the Circle. Mae, the story’s protagonist, starts working at the company – a rather obvious amalgam of Google, Facebook and Apple – and immediately finds herself in the midst of a hip, innovative, tech-crazy crowd of “innovators” and self-proclaimed world-changers who generally care a lot about collecting data—and fairly little about privacy. On the upside, the company’s “campus” is any employee’s wish come true, a vast agglomeration of smoothly designed glass buildings featuring not only offices and conference rooms, but also gourmet restaurants, concert venues, sports pitches and gyms—all free of charge for the “Circlers”.

It is these surface aspects that director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) gets just right in his adaptation of Eggers’ novel. Be it the open-plan offices with their glass walls, their ubiquitous flat-screens, their height-adjustable desks and ergonomic chairs; be it the Circlers themselves, in their casual clothes, sporting sneakers and sustainable water bottles wherever they go: Ponsoldt puts a lot of emphasis on details that virtually bring the world and the atmosphere of The Circle to life on the screen, and quite credibly so. Notwithstanding the fact that the different locales of the campus are a bit too obviously pieced together from different real-world locations, giving the film a bit of a TV-movie feel, the setting altogether feels authentic, if you as a viewer allow for that.

Similarly, Ponsoldt’s adaptation captures remarkably well the random nature, the overwhelming pace, the feel of social media and online commenting. Comment or text bubbles on screen certainly aren’t an innovative idea anymore, but they are an idea that is very effectively put to use here. The unfiltered flood of text fragments that Mae receives, in all kinds of different languages, displaying all kinds of different registers, interests and messages occasionally has the potential to overwhelm the audience. Forced by instinct to read, to react, to throw our gaze from corner to corner of the screen at every blip, we too become subjected to the communicative madness that characterizes the Circle’s social media products. And, if this restless gaze that the film forces us into feels oddly familiar, that is just the consequence of one of the great strengths of Ponsoldt’s The Circle: Like Eggers in his novel, Ponsoldt starts with what we have already gotten used to, takes it one step further, then throws it back at us. In the film’s best moments, the result is a chilling glimpse into what could be the future of our ways of communication.

Given the solid mise-en-scène, the talented cast and, not least, Eggers’ impressive novel, it is as sad as it is surprising, then, that Ponsoldt’s The Circle falls behind the literary model it was sculpted after. Although practically its entire cast (apart from, mostly, Emma Watson) seems to underperform for some reason, the film’s fault is certainly not in our stars (sorry for that one!)—but rather in what has got to be one of the most dissatisfyingly sloppy scripts in a long time: Hurried and drastically straying from the plot of the novel, it essentially crushes Eggers’ carefully wrought narrative arc, making much of the character development seem psychologically implausible and, at times, downright confusing: Why does Mae, the protagonist, even fall for the Circle? Why does she go to the extreme lengths that she does? Where the novel gives hints, at least, to answer these questions, more often than not, the film leaves its audience empty-handed.

In addition, not only were some incidents and scenes altered (as they inevitably would), but an entire character from the novel, and not an entirely irrelevant one, got scrapped in the film: While Francis is not central to the plot of the novel per se, Mae’s relationship with him and the ensuing love triangle go a long way towards making the reader understand why Mae acts the way she does. By dropping the character of Francis (and, incidentally, any and all romantic endeavors that the original Mae has), the movie denies the viewer crucial moments of insight into its protagonist’s soul.

The problem, then, is not that many passages from the novel ended up on the cutting room floor (or, more likely still, in a writer’s drawer), nor that very liberal changes were made to other scenes and characters: That is the practice of adaptation, and a film is not a book. The real problem is the way Ponsoldt’s The Circle rushes to tick off the most important ‘events’ related in the novel, one after the other. Ever aiming for the effect, for the big image, and, arguably, for the easy solution, it shows us what happens on the surface—but loses touch with the inner life of its characters. This by no means applies to the protagonist only: Ellar Coltrane (the guy whose childhood you think you know from watching Boyhood) plays Mercer, whom Eggers portrays as a fiercely techno-skeptical and self-dependent young man, and who is the source of most of the overt cultural criticism his novel offers. The movie’s Mercer, on the other hand, is merely a shadow of that character. We see what he does for a living, we see that he finally attempts to drop off the chart (But why? What drives him?), we see his globally televised death. Yet, we never actually get to know him as a fully-fleshed character, with his own views and his own life goals. Annie (Karen Gillan)? Same story. Ty (John Boyega)? Even worse.

I was surprised, to say the very least, when the end credits identified Dave Eggers as co-writer, for so many of his most important and timely themes are completely absent from Ponsoldt’s corporate thriller. But then, “co-writer” or not, it seems like Eggers didn’t have so much of a hand in actually producing the script, which is a lot more reassuring than his statement that Ponsoldt “got to the essence” of his novel (sarcasm, anyone?).

Eggers’ The Circle is fast-paced, but not hurried; it stretches your imagination in places, but it doesn’t bend and break it. Most importantly, it asks the right questions and, at its best, gives you pause and makes you ponder them. In Ponsoldt’s The Circle, by contrast, the questions and themes are there somehow, but get drowned by the fanfare, the surfaces, and the movie’s narrative leaps. It is ironic beyond compare: A novel that essentially pits the superficial, fast-paced world of social media against the introspection and immediacy of experience of an unplugged life, gets turned into a movie that is so infatuated with the surface level of its events and places that it forgets to allow for introspection.

Coincidental coupling. | ©pheuilleton

Ponsoldt’s film gets the ‘spirit’, or the atmosphere, of the Circle, yes. At no time, though, does it seriously attempt to explore what lies beneath the glossy surface of life at the company, or with the company’s products. At best, it hints that there might be something wrong. And it does that convincingly, sometimes, in those scenes that portray a more nightmarish vision of digital interconnectedness (such as the manhunt during the SoulSearch presentation). Yet, it never bothers to uncover the social and psychological mechanisms that lead to these events, making it a much lesser film than it could have been—and not nearly the adaptation Eggers’ The Circle would have deserved.

Leaving its audience confused and emotionally charged, but providing neither outlook nor explanation, Ponsoldt’s adaptation does not fill the shoes of the great novel it is based on. In the end, it raises the intriguing question what someone like Steven Spielberg would have done with the material. Regrettably, I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out, so I suggest we simply stick with what we have: Dave Eggers’ The Circle is available in your local bookstore. Read it, don’t watch it.

The Circle (US 2017). Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers. Cinematography: Matthew Libatique. Starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan and John Boyega. 110 min.

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