I first heard about ‘The Circle’ from a friend at a trendy software company where I was once employed. This particular friend, who expressed her almost constant annoyance with the tech business-y jargon and rituals that seeped into our everyday language and behavior, praised the book’s eerie replication of the oddities in our own workplace; the insular and borderline cultish corporate culture, the quasi-mandatory after-hours parties and social events, weekly all-company presentations that are delivered with a general air of self-importance, and a catalogue of other day-to-day absurdities that we observed in our increasingly privileged and elitist work environment.
Broadly speaking, ‘The Circle’ tells the story of the unstoppable rise of a Google-esque tech company and one woman’s role in facilitating that rise. It is, in essence, yet another of the technology-centric cautionary tales that have risen in popularity of late times, but this is one that warns the dangers that technology poses to personal privacy.
In spite of the amusing satirical aspects of the setting, the novel ultimately disappointed me, and much of my mounting criticism centered on the female lead, Mae. Throughout the novel, she was consistently depicted as a young, easily manipulated woman who was so eager to please others that she rarely even thought to challenge any of the highly-questionable ideas presented to her. She struck me as a character who lacked genuine agency, which made it almost impossible for me to sympathize with her.
Much of this was demonstrated in her unbalanced relationships with men. In the novel, one of Mae’s love interests demonstrates a proclivity for sexist remarks, and Mae not only tolerates his sexism but also constantly reassures him of how sexually desirable he is. This and other similar narrative choices made for an overall disheartening reading experience, in large part due to the conscious disempowerment of its female protagonist.
Because of this, I approached the movie adaptation with all the wariness of a fish careening onto dry land. But as the minutes ticked into hours, I gradually realized that someone in the production team must have harbored similar criticisms as mine.
The film adaptation addresses many of the issues that I had with the novel and avoids a trap that the novel succumbs to time and time again: the reflex to portray Mae as a mindless follower of The Man rather than a thinking, questioning human being. There are notable improvements made to Mae’s character, including conscious attempts to inject more agency to her actions and decisions. This difference is best exemplified in the film’s ending, which is a considerable divergence from the conclusion of the novel. I won’t spoil the details here, but I will say that as wrongheaded as Mae’s ideas on technology might be, the film version of her at least has the brains to mistrust the highly-suspicious hand that feeds her.
The men are largely improved as well. The sexist love interest is mercifully excised from the story. Likewise, whereas the novel depicted one pivotal character as a bitter and patronizing ex-boyfriend, the film recasts him as a socially awkward but overall harmless childhood friend.
But for all of its virtues, the film also inherits one of the novel’s biggest flaws; its hollow and overly simplistic commentary on technology. If anything the film adaptation only worsens this issue, as it seems to adopt a confused and bafflingly optimistic attitude towards our future and the role that technology will play in it.
This feels especially true when you compare ‘The Circle’ to another pop culturally relevant cautionary tale on technology which is the recently released Netflix series ‘Black Mirror’. At its core, ‘Black Mirror’ is a rather unforgiving show. It allows itself to delve into the worst and most depraved aspects of humanity, and to drill in the message that it is not technology itself that is harmful but rather the people using it.
In comparison, both ‘The Circle’ novel and film seem to knowingly downplay the ugliest aspects of humanity. In particular, they fail to portray the rampant toxicity of online culture and instead present a friendlier, less divisive, and more idealistic version of the internet. This is an odd choice considering that this is meant to be a criticism of technology and the way it is used. ‘The Circle’ also misses its opportunity to address the sheer dominance of white males in the tech industry, instead choosing to treat workplace diversity as a non-issue.
The end result is the depiction of a sanitized digital world, one that feels all too tame compared to its real world counterpart. In limiting its criticisms of technology to privacy alone and turning a blind eye to the myriad of other “digital age” problems that have entered the national conversation, ‘The Circle’ loses much of its edge. The film’s optimism feels undeserved, and as a result, its criticisms of technology come off as a bit toothless.
This isn’t to say that ‘The Circle’ is entirely devoid of value. After all, it’s the rare movie that improves upon its source material, which is no small feat in an age where remakes, reboots, and adaptations run rampant. But even this improved version of ‘The Circle’ feels like a wasted opportunity.
Author: Helen from Overlooked
Editor: Ammaarah Mookadam