Emma Watson, ‘The Circle,’ and Satire Gone Awry

STX Entertainment/Released

Too Fast for the Satire, and Too Slow for a Movie:

I stand firmly by the theory that the book is always better—and that certainly is true in the case of The Circle. Not even the combined talents of Tom Hanks and Emma Watson could save its fundamental flaw: Dave Eggers’s The Circle is too subtle a satire/thriller for film.1

The narrative begins with Emma Watson’s Mae starting a job at a tech company. She immediately faces questions about her privacy and participation in technology. The progression of questions driving the novel and the film are the same, but they land differently:

Should Mae want to be socially engaged in her work? Of course! Should she ‘like’, click, and support her colleagues? Of course!  

Wouldn’t it be helpful if our preferences were all recorded—that way we wouldn’t have weird or offensive advertisements wasting our time? Yeah. Wouldn’t it be helpful if our tastes, foods, and physical activity were monitored so that we could be healthy? Sure, why not.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have cameras in your parent’s house to visit with them even when you’re busy—or what if you had a sick parent, then wouldn’t that mean keeping them safe? Yeah, ok, I guess. If we had a way to recover lost or kidnapped children in a matter of minutes, shouldn’t we? Well, yeah!

If a corporation could save our government trillions, isn’t that a good idea? If a company could handle voting procedures more effectively and attain 100% participation in government, shouldn’t we invest in that? Hmm…

Should there be a camera so that we can protect protesters from tyrants and human rights violations? Well, of course! Shouldn’t our government and politicians be totally transparent? Sure, yes. Wouldn’t we all behave better if we knew people were watching us at all times? I mean, wouldn’t that mean we’d be our best selves instead of keeping secrets or lying to others? If a corporation could nearly end crime altogether, then shouldn’t we allow it to monitor every aspect of our lives?

Wait. Woah… What?

The saying goes that secret in cooking the frog lies in the incremental increase of temperature which imperceptibly leads to boiling. The tension in The Circle builds with choices in the narrative which seem miniscule at the time. They appear harmless, but—when they are compiled and reach a boiling point—it’s horrifying. That’s exactly the slow building tension which doesn’t translate well from a novel of 491 pages to a movie of 1 hour and 50 minutes.

The thrill, horror, and satire of the slow, logical progression is lost.

Even the boiling point—the climax where the consequences of Mae’s choices become clear—radically changes in the film.

STX Entertainment/Released

STX Entertainment/Released

Not to Spoil the Ending, But the Film Did:

The satire of Dave Eggers’s novel focuses upon our consumption of technology in order to lead us towards the realization: something must change—we must realize that our privacy matters and our decisions about technology have consequences

In the novel, Mae’s slow choices lead her to climb in notoriety and influence within the Circle. She competes to attain top “participation” points, eventually becoming a celebrity. These minor choices represent a sort of indoctrination, and when they come to a boil, it’s shocking. The novel ends with Mae sitting beside her best friend, Annie, who is in a coma. As she looks at Annie lovingly, Mae also looks at the monitors for brain activity. She reflects that it is simply wrong that her unconscious friend is not sharing her dreams, and Mae makes a mental note to bring this up to the corporation’s leadership. It is horrifying to see how far Mae has surrendered any concept of privacy, but it makes sense that she would have gotten here from all of her steps along the way. Eggers’s satire shocks the reader into realizing that simple choices about technology may not be meaningless or without consequences after all.

In the film version of The Circle, Emma Watson is empowered to rebel and to break the inevitable omnipotence and omniscience of a corporation that profits on lack of privacy. This time, there’s no coma. Annie simply escapes the company and the pressure. Instead, the surprising death of Emma Watson’s semi-love-interest actually redeems her in the film. The result is that Watson works within the company, to overthrow the problem. It makes for a “nice” ending, but it takes away the power from the entire endeavor.

Emma Watson ends the threat of the total destruction of privacy by forcing the company’s two leaders to “go transparent.” This holds that the solution to the dangerous progression of ultimate transparency (the disappearance of privacy), lies not in identifying the need for privacy but in ensuring that ALL are transparent. The answer to technology is in fact technology.

But doesn’t this miss the point? Where Eggers’s novel leads a reader to see value in privacy and to question technology, the film claims that the answer to the danger of transparency is MORE transparency. How can that work? Instead of pointing out how problematic it can be for humans to be watched 100% of the time, the film holds that in fact if we simply apply it evenly we can overcome any injustice or oppression caused by such a technology.2

Instead of leading the audience towards change or caution, the filmmakers end The Circle with a happy ending: Emma Watson walks literally and symbolically “into the light.” It’s happy, and the audience can all breathe a sigh of relief.  Of course, the sigh of relief that the film offers undercuts the protest and power of the novel.

The film not only disappoints, it’s dangerous in doing so, reassuring people when they should not be reassured. Where the novel terrified me into action, the film fell flat, only proving my theory: the book is always better.

  1. We’re fans of the book: 

  2. It’s not only a faulty presumption, but it’s an endless loop without resolution: a problem attempting to solve itself.

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