Film adaptation of “the circle”: pointing the finger at the web

Dystopia in a technology corporation: James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of the bestseller "The Circle" works better than Dave Eggers’ book.

Glass facades instead of gray cubicles: Mae (Emma Watson) changes her job Photo: dpa

When social developments are lamented these days, the index finger is inevitably pointed in the direction of the Internet. From election results to suicide rates, from sexual morality to musical taste, there is hardly a topic that seems unaffected by it.

More and more, technology companies, recently considered hip and progressive, have fallen into disrepute as sinister data collectors. Increasingly, cinema is portraying them as the new villains, whose "dream," in keeping with old James Bond logic, can only be world domination.

In James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of the dystopian novel "The Circle" by Dave Eggers, the main character Mae (Emma Watson) at the beginning still believes in the great image of the Circle corporation, which is marked as a mixture of Google, Apple and Paypal. Mae’s jubilation at the possibility of trading her sad job in customer service at an unnamed company for employment at the hip data company is more than plausibly staged by the film: instead of working in gray cubicles, who wouldn’t prefer to work behind the glass facades of the Circle site, where work and leisure architecture merge as if seamlessly and a university atmosphere beckons with fitness facilities and a vegan cafeteria? You could put up with a little pushy New Age talk in return.

Even if at least the European viewer probably listens suspiciously as soon as there is talk of "one account for all Internet functions" – apparently the business model with which the Circle Group justifies its success. The by no means subtle coercion that is soon exerted on Mae to get her to participate more on the social media channels also seems by no means as harmless to the viewer as it does to the stressed main character. Mae, however, is easily persuaded. And yes, unfortunately, the plot of the film then largely consists of showing how long it takes for her to regret it.

The naivete of the main character and the predictability of the plot is something Ponsoldt’s film adaptation takes from the original. Eggers’ novel already made no effort to make Mae believable as a woman with a mind of her own. She is purely a vehicle, at first riding the Circle corporation’s "brave new world" and rising in it until her eyes are opened – with the help of one man, to boot: John Boyega plays the mysterious Circle co-founder, who wanders the corporation’s catacombs but chooses Mae, of all people, to be his protege.

Completely unreal characters

With his help, she will uncover the evil mind behind the actions of the corporation’s CEO Bailey (Tom Hanks). Should we blame Emma Watson for making her doubly alienated character implausible by portraying her with almost the self-evident intelligence as her Hermione once did in the "Harry Potter" films?

Incidentally, the same applies to the entire film, which argues better in its staging than Eggers’ polemical novel does. Tom Hanks, for example, in the role of a corporate CEO who holds company meetings in the style of Steve Jobs’ product presentations, lends his character a seductive looseness that believably masks the fact that his proposal to hold politicians accountable through omnidirectional surveillance plays into the hands of totalitarianism.

"The Circle." Directed by James Ponsoldt. With Emma Watson, Tom Hanks et al. USA/United Arab Emirates 2017, 119 min.

The film also gets to the heart of the confusion of social media when Mae decides to experiment with "full transparency" and allows herself to be accompanied through her day by live Circle cameras. From then on, user comments wander through the picture as drifting speech bubbles – in all their monstrous polyphony: from phrases of encouragement to petty complaints to incoherent laments like "My girlfriend left me," everything is there.

Nevertheless, both the film and the book suffer from the same phenomenon: the topics of data security, Internet mobs and the surveillance state are among the most important of our time. The dangers that "The Circle" paints are all real. But unfortunately, the characters navigating these issues in the film seem completely unreal. They divide into blind followers who cheer their own surveillance and a few outside skeptics. The middle ground, where everyone stands who uses the Internet and social media but wants to retain power over their own data, doesn’t happen here.