Aaron Sorkin’s Error

I recently saw The Social Network — the movie about Facebook that had everybody all aflutter. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin, which means that it has lots of really sharp, clever, fast-moving dialogue, and for that I admired it. But I’ve spent the last four years writing historical fiction; any time I see a movie like this, one of the first things I think of is, how accurate is it?

Well, let’s go to Aaron Sorkin for the answer:

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling [. . .] I feel like, had I met Mark [Zuckerberg], I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things.”

Um.

Excuse me?

I don’t demand perfect historical accuracy from fiction. Real life is messy; it’s full of irrelevant details and plots that don’t go anywhere and it rarely manages a satisfying narrative shape. Any time we fictionalize real people and real events, we make decisions about what to include and how to present it and what bits can be safely tidied away. I understand that; I’ve done it myself. (Hell, I’ve even blamed some of the events on faeries, which certainly isn’t how it went in truth.)

But I take serious exception to the notion that it’s okay to tell a story that purports to be about an actual person — one who’s still living, at that — and completely throw out the window the slightest concern for accuracy. And that’s what Sorkin has done. To pick one central, flagrant example: in The Social Network, the first thing that happens is that “Mark Zuckerberg” gets dumped by his girlfriend, which causes him to go home and start coding a site (Facesmash) that leads ultimately to the creation of Facebook. And the last thing that happens is that “Mark Zuckerberg,” sitting alone (and lonely) in a room, sends an invite to that same girl, requesting that she add him as a friend. The central narrative line of Sorkin’s story is that “Mark Zuckerberg” did all this stuff because he has no girlfriend.

Mark Zuckerberg — without the quotation marks — has been with the same girlfriend since 2003, before the founding of Facebook.

This is kind of like telling a story about Elizabeth I where she gets canonized as one of England’s greatest monarchs because of her steadfast and lifelong marriage to a good man.

The difference being, of course, that people know Elizabeth I as “the Virgin Queen,” the woman who never married and never had any kids (outside of scurrilous contemporary rumour). People don’t know Zuckerberg’s personal life. They are going to take the story Sorkin tells them as something like true — maybe not in all the details, sure, but in its general shape. They don’t know any better. And Sorkin doesn’t appear to feel he owes anything to that audience, nor to the people about whom he’s supposedly telling this story. He’s glad he never met the person behind the name, because then he might have had to face the fact that he isn’t telling a story about Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook; he’s telling a story of his own invention, to which he has decided to attach the names “Mark Zuckerberg” and “Facebook.”

In fairness to Sorkin, I will back off for a moment and acknowledge that the film is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much of the material is original to the (nonfiction) book, and how much to the (historical fiction) movie. The plot summary on Wikipedia doesn’t say anything about the “dumped by a girl” impetus, so I’m guessing that’s Sorkin’s invention — but if I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments. Regardless, Sorkin is the source of that quote up above. He’s the one telling us, pure and simple, that he doesn’t want to be bothered by pesky real people and facts. Later on in that same article, he goes on to say “What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?” . . . which as far as I’m concerned just makes him sound like an ass.

It isn’t accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake. It’s accuracy for the sake of honesty and respect. Which is something I care about rather a lot. Maybe we’re collectively okay with it in this instance because Zuckerberg is also something of an ass with no respect for privacy, and he’s filthy rich to boot, so he’s a safe target; people would probably be a lot more offended if Sorkin had said the same things and told a similarly inaccurate story about a less privileged individual. But individually, I’m not okay with it at all. The Social Network was a clever movie, but I only enjoyed it to the extent that I could separate it from the real people it was not at all about.

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  1. 1. Shakatany

    The son of a friend of mine was one of the first people Mark Zuckerberg hired when he moved to the west coast to expand FB. His mother told me that Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires is full of inaccuracies (her son is mentioned as an engineer when he’s anything but).
    It really irks me that Sorkin so proudly made up his own version of the founding of FB and that he could get away with it. In his defense people bring up “Citizen Kane” which was really about William Randolph Hearst but at least Welles changed the names of his characters.
    I hear that the real Mark Zuckerberg is socially awkward but he has a vision that FB can change the world (and in parts of the world that may be true) and like many visionaries may have run roughshod over others. He’s also young and still learning to deal with people. I think he handled this whole mess as best he could up to the appearance on SNL. Unfortunately this was a case of “when the legend becomes fact (because of Mezrich’s book), print (or in this case film) the legend.”

  2. 2. Mary

    One advantage of setting one’s stories in imaginary worlds is you can scrape off the serial numbers and do as you please.

  3. 3. Ulrika

    *shrug* I think Sorkin is saying his first commitment is to telling a good and engaging story. He does that. The “dumped by a girl” motive is simple, direct, and easy for the audience to process quickly. Getting into real world motivations, or rather, what people say after the fact were their motivations, which is the best Sorkin could possibly have access to, is likely to get complex, oblique, and difficult pretty damn’ fast. It would likely be messy, and slow down the plot.

    Sorkin’s job is to write well-paced and compelling film script. He did that in spades. And there’s a word for people who take non-documentaries, or even single-source news articles, for facts: foolish.

  4. 4. W C Casey

    Why would anyone expect factual/historical accuracy in a film? I’ve seen very few that even make the attempt. I agree that a film about real persons or events, living or dead, should at least stick to the known facts. From that point on, artistic license takes over to fill out the story; creating characters, dialog and detail. Even a conscientious film like ‘The Conspiracy’ creates an illusion of historical accuracy to lend support to a dodgy conspiracy theory.

    On the other hand, if the subject is interesting enough, the viewer may be inspired to do the follow-up research necessary to confirm or refute the film’s version of events – as Ms. Brennan did with ‘The Social Contract’. That’s the real value of historical films.

  5. 5. Kevin

    I have no problems with his statement, in fact I think it shows a great deal of integrity and honesty. He was brought in to write a fictionalized story based on real events – that’s what he did. By allowing himself room to move from the actual events, he had the room to poke at the narrative to tell a better story. Historical accuracy often makes for bad narrative, just as canonacial accuracy often makes for bad adaptation (*cough*Watchmen*cough*). We’re just used to getting the historical whitewash after everyone involved is dead (*cough*TheKing’sSpeech*cough) but in this exciting post-singularity world, we don’t have the comfort of chronological distance before mythologizing the mundane events of history.

    (I say that like its a new thing, but its just the return of dime novel biographies – only this time in a more media savvy world, where even the fictional account gets recapitulated and re-absorbed into the narrative by the people involved. See the Zuck’s post-Social Network public appearances.)

    Had he not owned up to where his loyalties lied, that’d be different, but he planted his flag for storytelling and didn’t try to tell anyone it was the truth.

  6. 6. Alayne

    I’ve read The Accidental Billionaires, and the dumped-by-girlfriend incident isn’t in it.

    Both the movie & the book get certain things very right — particularly the class system in the U.S. and how Harvard in particular is class-ridden. Similarly, both get it right that one of the reasons for going to Harvard is the “friends” and contacts that one makes there (even more than the education) and how that could be rethought into a computer application.

    But the geeky stuff and the urge to make a wonderful program and the personal interaction I don’t think either of them got as well.

    In addition, the main source for the book was Eduardo, so it’s obviously from his viewpoint. Zuckerberg might see it differently.

    I enjoyed both as stories, but they were lightweight. I really think that the definitive story about Facebook is yet to be written.

  7. 7. Stevie Carroll

    Personally, I think a story in which the central geek had a steady girlfriend (or partner of any sort) throughout the creation of their greatest success would be fascinating. I like the idea of someone being driven and also managing to have a life outside that.

  8. 8. Tim of Angle

    I wish people would learn how to use the word ‘privileged’ properly. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t ‘privileged’ at all; he worked hard for what he’s got, and produced a product that people are willing to give him plenty of money for. Contrast Al Gore, a Senator’s son who has gotten a free ride pretty much all of his life. Words have meanings. Let’s use them correctly.

  9. 9. cead

    Thank you for this.

    I didn’t see the film, because fictionalised accounts of still-living people really make me uncomfortable; and what you say here is part of why this is so. I understand that liberties may be taken with accounts of historical events, but when the people involved are still alive, and fake versions of their lives – which they themselves never authorised – are projected to the masses, this strikes me as unconscionable. Actually, even if all the facts are technically correct, the interpretation given them by those in charge of the creative project may still distort them beyond recognition. I couldn’t sit through The Queen for the same reason.

  10. 10. Tom Galloway

    From what I’ve been told by first- and second-hand sources, Mezrich’s previous claim to fame books about the MIT Blackjack Team contained substantially more fiction than one expects from non-fiction books.

  11. 11. Elias McClellan

    Spielburg’s “Munich,” (which factually is a cartoon but as a film) is spectacularly entertaining. By contrast, Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” was pitch perfect– and no one cared or went to see it. “Gettysburg,” hewn closely to the book, which sucked out loud. The film is riddled with inaccuracies but both critics and CW buffs love it for the engaging story. I kinda have to go with Sorkin on this one.

  12. 12. Colleen

    I understand the need to tell a good story, I really, really do. Which is why, when you’re working with historical fiction, you file all the serial numbers off. I mean, it really shouldn’t be a stretch to come up with your own story about a young man who created a brilliant (if deeply flawed) way of communicating.

    But when you attach real people and real names to it, that’s not a good story – that’s shockingly close to libel. Let’s say you wanted to write a story about a young woman who moved to the big city and divorced her husband for a man in the limelight. Then you attach my name to it. (Gah!)

    The kernel of truth is there: I moved, and I’m divorced. But suddenly you have people relating to me as if this story is truth, and that’s innappropriate.

    So great, tell me a good story. Tell me a great story that has a wink and a nod to its source material. But don’t tell me that story IS its source material.

  13. 13. Ide Cyan

    The Good Wife episode “Net Worth” was a fun take on the issues surrounding Aaron Sorkin, Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network and the accuracy thereof.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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