Aaron Sorkin’s Error

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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.”


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.