Movie Adaptation

'The Circle' - Review

There’s a one-word endorsement from The Times on the front cover of The Circle by Dave Eggers – ‘Unputdownable’. Aside from my lack of surety that unputdownable is even a word, my reaction to this pithy assessment is binary – yes-no, one-zero, agree-disagree - which is pretty funny given The Circle’s subject matter.

In Eggers’ fictional yet just-over-the-horizon world, the Circle is the largest and most pervasive internet company on the planet headquartered in an impressive, manicured and ordered city-state-style campus near San Francisco. Think Mountain View, Menlo Park or Cupertino and you’d be very warm.

Anyone with a mobile phone anywhere in the world with wi-fi (and that’s everywhere it seems) has a Circle TruYou account which is so much more than a social media platform.  TruYou aggregates all of a person’s online presences and transactions into one – one identity, one profile, one password, one set of ubiquitous and free online tools – everything one needs to negotiate (and be tracked) in this brave new perpetually online, uber-connected and algorithmed-beyond-all-reason world.

As Mae Holland, the main protagonist in the story says of the Circle, ‘It’s the chaos of the web made elegant’, that and virtually compulsory. Add to this equation another Circle innovation - SeeChange cameras that are tiny, cheap, easily installed and always connected - and the Circle’s corporate push to have all elected officials wear one of these for complete transparency.  Not too far into the book the cult-like, ubiquitous, ‘all that happens must be known’ credo of this Circle-world starts to come into unsettling focus.

Helped by her college friend Annie, Mae lands the job of her dreams at the Circle declaring ‘it’s heaven’ the first time she walks onto the campus. Pretty soon she never wants to leave the campus which really is a world of its own, specifically designed to encourage/coerce ‘Circlers’ to stay inside its gates with free food, curated events every night and on weekends, a myriad of social interest clubs and support groups, and even dormitory accommodation.

It’s here, while Mae undergoes orientation to her new place of work, that my binary reactions to this book’s ‘unputdownable’ claim started bubbling up. Actually, saying I agree/disagree with unputdownable is too clean-cut.  My reactions to three particular events in the early part of the book are better described as ‘don’t want to watch but can’t look away’.

The first time this happens is when Mae attends a ‘Dream Friday’ session where Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle’s so-called ‘three wise men’, demonstrates SeeChange cameras. During the presentation Bailey shows footage from Cairo where several dissidents have placed cameras along the route of a protest rally.  Bailey exhorts the congregation of eager Circlers to imagine the possibilities for enhanced democracy and human rights when these always-on cameras broadcast everything to the world.  No longer will riot police deployed by oppressive regimes be able to drag activists down dark alleys to administer rough justice without witness or impunity. The assembled Circlers roar their approval as the mantra of ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN appears on the screen.

Then the scene switches to something a little closer to home. With one-click Circlers see Bailey’s own elderly mother padding down a hallway in her house wearing nothing but a towel.  To a chorus of laughter Bailey freely admits that he placed SeeChange devices throughout his mother’s home without her knowledge because, “she wouldn’t have let me do it otherwise”. Any privacy or outright creep-factor concerns are far outweighed by the benefits of Bailey being able to ‘keep an eye’ on his increasingly frail mother who lives alone. The assembled wholeheartedly agree.

The second time my can’t-watch/can’t-look-away reaction popped up is when Mae is sent for a routine health check as part of her orientation. Her assigned doctor is already in possession of Mae’s medical records and is already aware that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis. Mae is asked to drink what looks like a wheatgrass smoothie and after she’s drained the glass, the doctor informs her that she’s just swallowed a sensor that tracks and analyses her vital signs. The data is visible to Mae via a bracelet monitor which she wears all the time and, naturally, that real-time data is also received and stored on the Circle medical centre’s database. Spooky doesn’t quite cover it.

The third time something like this happened while I was reading The Circle I almost disproved the theory that the book is unputdownable.  I felt actual physical discomfort when, not too long into her new job, Mae gets a visit from Denise and Josiah from HR to ‘counsel’ her on lack of input to the social media life of the Circle.  D and J know Mae went off-campus at 5.42pm the previous Friday and did not return until 8.46am on Monday morning. Mae’s father had had a turn and, understandably, she’d headed home to help her mother deal with the situation. Over that weekend, however, Mae missed a couple of on-campus events but worse than that, her Circle social media feeds had gone dark.

Under the guise of caring for Mae and her family’s welfare, Denise and Josiah explain that while social media activity is not a pre-requisite of employment at the Circle, it is, nonetheless, an important measure of a Circler’s commitment to the job.  Mae is sure she’s about to be fired but saves the day by quickly acquiescing to the assertion that she’s been incredibly selfish, causing worry and hurt to her Circle-family by not sharing her every waking moment both on and off campus.

For someone who regularly ditches the always-on demands of social media in favour of actual work or home duties liking washing clothes and cooking meals, Mae’s exchange with the HR drones made my flesh crawl.

And it gets worse from there. Before long Mae’s life within the Circle extends outside her place of work to invade and inveigle the lives of her parents and her old boyfriend, Mercer, with creepy, voyeuristic and ultimately tragic consequences.

And it’s here we see the stark juxtaposition between those inside the Circle, like Mae, Annie and several thousand other Kool-Aid drinking ‘Circlers’; and those on the outside, desperately trying to get in or trying desperately to avoid being sucked into the Circle’s all-encompassing, global connectedness, ‘all that happens must be known’ vortex.

In the wash-up, however, I guess I’m more often in the agree camp than not in relation to The Times’ claim that The Circle is ‘unputdownable’.  It is eminently so due undeniably to the way in which Dave Eggers has written it. The book is an intricately detailed, inexorable march of a story overlaid with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something compulsion. A bit like a Twitter feed in fact.

The Circle is not so much a cautionary tale for our times but a billboard on a busy highway screaming THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING!

The Circle movie, directed by James Ponstold, starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan, has just been released in Australia.


Click on the cover image to buy your copy of the book from Booktopia.

'A Dog's Purpose' - Review

I got a letter from a dog once. Sammy the Labrador.  Entitled ‘Be Good Not Naughty’, the letter informed me that dog training services were now on offer at a kennel we’d recently booked our own pup into. Sammy extolled the virtues of the training, saying his mum and dad ‘never go mad on me anymore’ because now he’s ‘a good dog, not a naughty one’.  The letter was written completely in Sammy’s voice and to this day, it was the most memorable and effective piece of direct mail I’ve ever received.

Now, picture that letter as a book written entirely in the voice of one dog over four separate incarnations and you’ll get close to the genius that is A Dog’s Purpose.  I say genius although some may describe the writing style as facile and simplistic.  To those people my retort would be ‘cool your literary jets - the narrator is a dog after all’. Any book that manages to make the reader laugh and cry while considering the meaning the life, deserves to be written and read.

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderful tale (no pun intended) told entirely from a dog’s perspective. But the book doesn’t only dwell in the realm of cute, furry and funny, it goes well beyond that to explore some of life’s biggest questions, ‘why am I here?’, ‘what happens when we die?’ and ‘will there be bacon?’

These questions are explored in all four incarnations of our canine narrator, first as the stray Toby, then as Bailey, Ellie (a girl-dog this time) and finally as Buddy.  Each incarnation imparts certain lessons that build on one another until the denouement when Buddy finally puts together the reason for his serial existence.

A Dog’s Purpose has recently been released as a feature film with the screenplay co-written by the author of the book, W. Bruce Cameron.  I didn’t know that when I saw the film but it makes sense. The movie is also told completely from the pup’s perspective and many of the lines straight from the dog’s mouth (so to speak) are exactly the same as the print version.  That makes for a nice sense of continuity for those who have read the book before seeing the movie while those that haven’t would be none the wiser.

The storyline was mostly the same too with only minor changes for the purposes of distilling a 320 page book into a 100 minute feature film. However, that distillation seems to do away with the book’s subtle yet emphatic daisy-chain of lessons learned by Toby/Bailey/Ellie in their lives, culminating in Buddy’s final awakening about his purpose.  This is a great shame to my way of thinking.

The book gives the reader a strong sense that the experiences of each of these dogs are leading to ‘the big answer’.  As a serial reader of many ‘what’s-it-all-about-Alfie?’ spiritual texts, I recognise that pattern and have come to expect and look forward to it. But this gentle epiphany-ridden journey was not as evident to me as a viewer of the movie version of A Dog’s Purpose, despite the film being very enjoyable.

To me it was another disappointing example of nuance being lost in translation from text to screen. Instead of the slow build experienced by the reader, the viewer ends up being pummelled in the last scene with worthy yet clumsily rendered advice from a dog about the secret of life. ‘Be here now’ is the final message of the film, vastly different from the written word, delivered on screen as if from some guru, albeit a four-legged one.

That heavy-handedness aside, there are many scenes in the book and in the film that are subtly and powerfully portrayed.  One that springs to mind is when our canine narrator observes that humans are very complicated beings. In his own simplistic, doggy way, Bailey implies that humans make things that should be simple, like love, kindness and doing what makes you happy, much more complex than they need to be.  Therein lies the genius of A Dog’s Purpose – that we two-legged types might receive some insight into those big life questions through the eyes of a human’s best friend.

Which reminds me of that old joke - what do you get when you cross an insomniac with an agnostic dyslexic? Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there really is a dog.

a dogs purpose cover

Click here to buy your copy of A Dog’s Purpose by W.Bruce Cameron from Booktopia.