The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.
I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.
The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.
Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.
Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.
Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores. She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.
The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.
But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.
The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.
Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.
To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.
The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.
The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.
The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.