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Inventing Facebook

David Fincher, right, directing Eisenberg.   

The creative team behind The Social Network acknowledges, in almost uniform language, that “there’s no way the movie could have been written without Ben.” But they’re careful to note that the film was inspired by the proposal, not based on Mezrich’s book, which was published last year under the title The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook—A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. Though Sorkin met with Mezrich in a Boston hotel and the two men later compared notes as they did independent research, each was writing his own version of the story. Mezrich says he handed Sorkin chapters; Sorkin recalls “Ben reading some notes off his computer,” but adds, “I don’t remember getting written material and didn’t get a look at any of the book until the screenplay was almost finished.”

Mezrich’s book opens with a note in which the author explains that he re-created scenes using not just the factual record but “my best judgment,” altered descriptions, compressed several conversations into one, and changed settings. All that, plus its thin bibliography, its lack of footnotes, and Mezrich’s inability to obtain Zuckerberg’s cooperation, was too much for several major critics: In the New York Times, Janet Maslin slammed its “protracted feats of guesswork,” calling it “so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.” (“There’s a whole cabal of old-school journalists who hate the way I write nonfiction,” Mezrich says. “It’s a true story, but I write in a cinematic, thriller-esque style. It’s a valid form of nonfiction that dates back to Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Or maybe it’s a genre that I’m trying to create.”)

Sorkin’s screenplay and Mezrich’s book share a narrative arc, but The Accidental Billionaires is very much the Eduardo Saverin story—an aggrieved young man’s account of how a friend shafted him (a position clearly endorsed by Mezrich’s use of betrayal in the subtitle). Sorkin opted instead for a Rashomon-like, multi-perspective account that leaves room not only for Saverin’s and the Winklevosses’ takes but also for Zuckerberg’s. “Several different—and sometimes contradictory—versions of the story were told,” Sorkin says. “I didn’t choose one and decide that it was the truth. I dramatized the fact that there were conflicting stories.”

That may be the largest departure from Mezrich’s book, and it led to Sorkin’s most daring decision, to turn Zuckerberg himself into a “character” complete with a set of personality traits—prickliness, intelligence, verbosity, wit, arrogance, and occasional dead-eyed blankness—that make him a classic Sorkin creation but also represent a big leap of imagination. It’s undeniably a lot to extrapolate from the hoodied, overrehearsed, sometimes halting real-life Zuckerberg we’ve observed in TV interviews and YouTube videos. (One of the problems with so self-consciously presenting yourself as a blank slate is that you invite others to draw all over you.) Zuckerberg, who cooperated with a different book, David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect, clearly feels stung; Kirkpatrick recently rallied to his side, calling the movie “horrifically unfair” in an August 20 Times story. Rudin calls that charge “specious” and says that Kirkpatrick discussed serving as a consultant on the movie but was warned by Facebook that he’d lose Zuckerberg’s participation in his book if he did.

We’re used to seeing movies reprocess history and even current events into drama, and in recent years, the writing of Peter Morgan, from The Queen and The Special Relationship to Frost/Nixon, has expanded the parameters of what we accept in the portrayal of contemporary public figures. But it’s one thing to play with Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. It’s a new kind of license to turn a real-life 26-year-old whose most life-changing decisions were made as a teenager into an incarnation of Silicon Valley killer instinct, undergrad dorkdom, impatient brilliance, and middle-class Jewish-American aspiration fighting the Wasp Establishment. Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is a young man pounding on the door, driven by his desire to get in—inside the Harvard final clubs that represent power and acceptance (something Zuckerberg has denied ever wanting), inside the social and dating dynamics that seem easy for his classmates and unreachable for him, and away from the Jewish fraternity that symbolizes his lack of access to the inner circle. It’s a great idea for a character—but you don’t have to be particularly sympathetic to Zuckerberg to understand his likely horror at having an entire set of motives, flaws, and vulnerabilities so publicly and permanently ascribed to him.

To Facebook users who are still smarting from Zuckerberg’s recent contention that an expectation of privacy is no longer the default mind-set on the Internet, the fact that the CEO himself is now feeling the glare of the spotlight represents sweet, though not exactly symmetrical, payback. Others, though, will call the transformation of Mark Zuckerberg into “Mark Zuckerberg” presumptuous. Sorkin doesn’t disagree but says it was essential. For one thing, he pretty much had to invent Zuckerberg, since protracted discussions between Rudin and Facebook that were intended to secure Zuckerberg’s participation eventually came to nothing. “Once we got past the fencing,” says Rudin, “I said, ‘What would have to happen for you to want to cooperate?’ And Elliot Schrage [Facebook’s head of global communications] said, ‘You have to not call it Facebook, and it would have to not take place at Harvard.’ So it was fairly clear that we weren’t going to be working together.” According to Rudin, Schrage did, however, supply a line that turns out to be one of the film’s sharpest defenses of Zuckerberg, dismissing his detractors by sardonically noting, “Creation myths need a devil.” “To me,” says Rudin, “that’s a great rebuttal to almost every aspect of what anyone would say that’s negative about him.”