“Knowing is good. But knowing everything is better.” That’s the philosophy of social networking company guru/founder Tom Hanks in “The Circle.” The film, based on the best-selling novel by Dave Eggers, is the story of a naïve young woman (Emma Watson) who upgrades her McJob into a fancier customer service rep position at the Circle, and goes from making Kool-Aid jokes to – well, stop me if you’ve heard this plot before. If you have, you know what to expect – and that eventually the protagonist will snap back to her senses and fix everything in the climax, in which we cue the foot-stomping ovation. The other two company gurus are Patton Oswalt and the enigmatic “Ty” (John Boyega) who is known to be off the grid, but it’s Tom wearing the Baggy Sweater and Graying Beard Combo of Amiable Genius who is the standout – and no doubt, the most sinister in the end.
In the opening scene of “The Circle,” Emma takes a kayak out to enjoy the sun and sea, where she’s promptly interrupted by her phone ringing – symbolism alert – to the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Well, I thought, at least that’s more original than opening with the protagonist’s car speeding down the road with the stereo blasting. (That’s the next scene.) Emma is attempting to take a break from the stress of her job and her father’s (Bill Paxton) multiple sclerosis which their insurance won’t properly fund. Luckily, she soon gets a call from her friend (Karen Gillan) who has managed to get her an interview at the Circle. After she aces it, Emma is given a whirlwind tour of the facilities and given her own laptop (with her name on it, no less). She’s also plunged into the deep end as she belatedly clues into the fact that she needs to be more social – which means joining in the myriad of activities and options both on and offline (the difference soon becomes blurred). Her bohemian friend Mercer (Ellan Coltrane) tries to warn her that she’s getting in over her head, but Emma pays him no heed. If this brave new world has echoes of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” well, at least everyone seems over-the-moon to be there and pumped that their employers are putting tiny cameras all over the globe so their whereabouts can be instantly pinpointed. (And Winston Smith never got to attend free concerts by Gen X icon Beck.) Eventually, Emma decides to be the first at the Circle to go completely “transparent,” that is have everything she does 24-7 live on camera so people can feel like a part of her life. But after things go south with her family and Ellan, she joins forces with another Circle-ite to end the façade of transparency.
Differences from the book include lack of sex scenes or romantic interests, including the scrapping of the character Francis – although there is a brief nod to the book project on child kidnapping prevention. Things tend to happen lickety split – you may feel at times as if you’ve nodded off and missed key parts. However, the meat of the novel is all there – including scenes that raise questions about a world in which everyone is held accountable by social networking. The protagonist is still a cipher, as she was in the book, but Emma does a good job of making her seem more than just one-dimensional. Like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show,” she’s a pawn in a larger game but is ultimately able to see the light – and drag Tom and co. into it kicking and screaming, too.