( Warning: Spoilers for The Circle ahead.)
When I first read Dave Eggers' novel The Circle in 2013, it felt like a glimpse into a scary (but not so distant) future. The book was written before the launch of Facebook Live, and before Uber — and its controversial passenger ranking system — became ubiquitous. Given how much more open our world has become since Eggers' novel was first released, The Circle 's 2017 film adaptation should have felt timelier than ever. Perhaps it would have — had the film not replaced Eggers' dark ending with a bizarrely hopeful one.
As a fan of the novel eagerly anticipating the film, I was thrilled when it appeared that the movie was following closely in the novel's footsteps. The Circle is about a young woman named Mae (Emma Watson in the movie) who starts a coveted job at a Google-like Silicon Valley company. Initially, it's a dream gig, complete with a killer insurance family plan (perfect for Mae's father, who's recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis), free meals, and an on-site nightclub. It's only when the Circle begins asking for more and more information from its users — and from Mae, specifically — that one sees the sinister side of its motto "knowing is good, but knowing everything is better."
Mae's initial gig at the Circle is in "Customer Experience" — a job that plants her behind the computer and has her begging customers for a perfect feedback score that echoes Uber's "five stars, please" ranking system. It's not long into her time at the Circle that the company launches its new product — SeeChange, a small, wireless camera that can be planted secretly anywhere around the world. When one of these cameras inadvertently helps save Mae's life following a midnight kayaking accident (just go with it), Mae decides to take the company up on their unusual offer. Mae "goes transparent" — meaning she wears a camera on her at all times — and becomes the spokesperson for an open future where "secrets are lies."
It's all "hypothetically" bad — and then it becomes actually terrible when Mae's friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane in the movie) dies as the result of a new Circle project that locates off-the-grid individuals. While driving away from Circle-operated drones, Mercer inadvertently drives his car off a bridge. This happens in both the book and the new film, but Mae's reaction to it is quite different. In the film, both the audience and Mae see the harm in a surveillance society that has already claimed one life. But in the novel? Well, Mae has already downed buckets of the company Kool-Aid.
In both versions of the story, Mae connects with Ty (John Boyega in the film), one of the creators of the Circle who now sees the danger in a society that demands people be watched 24/7. Ty implores Mae to stop the Circle from continuing on the road to "completion," which could lead to a totalitarian regime. In the film, Mae wholeheartedly agrees with Ty — she has already lost Mercer, as well as her connection to her family, thanks to going transparent. As a way to cap the Circle's push for openness, Mae announces at a company meeting that co-founders Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) will also be going transparent — and that all of their emails, texts, and recorded conversations have already been made public, thanks to Ty's help.
"We're so fucked," whispers Eamon to Tom, through smiles. It's a moment of victory for privacy — but it clashes greatly with Mae's previous pro-openness attitude.
For fans who felt something was off with the ending but didn't read the novel beforehand, here's what happens in the original story: Mae does team up with Ty, but does so only to betray him to Eamon. Mae believes, wholeheartedly, that the Circle's way is the way — that life is easier, better, and more fulfilling when privacy is all but eradicated. In fact, at the end of the novel, Mae hopes one day private thoughts are able to become public knowledge as well.
It's chilling. But isn't it also more realistic?
Mae's reaction in the novel seems far more in line with how someone fully ingrained in this society would operate. Mae's life has become better thanks to the Circle — at least, on the surface. She's traded in her privacy for celebrity — she's no longer a lost girl with no direction, but someone who people think matters. In Mae's mind, she's only lost people who have rejected the "way of the future," like Mercer and her parents, who chose to turn off their cameras following an embarrassing incident.
The Circle is, obviously, a satire: I hope that people would balk at the idea of living with a camera planted on their chest for eternity. However, the original ending of the story drives home a pretty important fact. Society, as a whole, will rarely turn its back on advancements in technology, regardless of its potential harms.
I can't imagine 10 years ago any average citizen thinking that "going live" would be a great idea. (Oh, the potential for embarrassment!) Today, it's a routine part of the social media experience, up there with sharing Instagrams of every "memorable moment" and Snapchats of trips to Starbucks. It used to be that the internet was seen as the scariest place for a teen to be — now, you'd be hard pressed to find a teenager who doesn't have a social media profile that includes their hometown and other personal information. Heck, many of us (this writer included) get into cars with strangers on the regular. The world didn't get safer: We, as a society, just became more comfortable with putting ourselves out there, regardless of the risk.
That's why Mae's "gotcha!" moment at the end of the film adaptation felt, well, false. Would she, a card-carrying member of team "privacy is the devil" really go back to a life where she's shut out of information? The real world says "No way."
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