'Social Network' script: A meaner take on Facebook

The book "The Accidental Billionaires" was relatively ambiguous in its treatment of Mark Zuckerberg. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay adaptation pulls off the kid gloves.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead about the plot and structure of "The Social Network."

I have my hands on a copy of "The Social Network," the screenplay that "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin has adapted from "The Accidental Billionaires"--author Ben Mezrich's tawdry tale of Facebook's origins that was released last week. Though I'm not gushing over it the way script blogger Carson Reeves did when he read it, I think it's a decent screenplay. With a good cast and production team, this movie might be quite enjoyable.

This could be a concern for Facebook. I'm guessing the company is already far enough along so that it doesn't have to worry about negative onscreen portrayals of its founder hurting its chances of a successful IPO, but the screenplay is smart and nasty enough--more so than the book it's based on--that it could raise PR issues regardless.

"The Social Network" follows the plot of "Accidental Billionaires" pretty precisely, with the most notable deviation being that there is an increased focus on Zuckerberg himself--Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who was Mezrich's main source for the book (he didn't talk to Zuckerberg), takes a bit of a back burner. But it's still the same narrative about Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook as an undergraduate at Harvard, and then facing opposition both internally (from Saverin) and externally (from Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twin co-founders of would-be Facebook rival ConnectU).

The dialogue--remember, Mezrich's book is dialogue-light--is snappy and witty, with a fast-paced, back-and-forth feel to it that "West Wing" fans will recognize as very Sorkin-esque. On paper, though, it comes across as much more slick and polished than real-life dialogue would have been (and it's up to the skills of the actors to ensure that this doesn't translate to onscreen cheesiness). And it treats the founding of Facebook with more gravitas than "Accidental Billionaires" does: scenes of the social network's early days at Harvard are interspersed with snippets from later court depositions between Zuckerberg and Saverin, as well as Zuckerberg and the ConnectU founders.

But the most notable difference is that, perhaps because of the infusion of dialogue, Zuckerberg is a significantly more dislikeable character than he is in the book, where he's painted as simply enigmatic and a little detached. In the screenplay, he's far more class-conscious and his lines are typically weighted with snarky arrogance. The question of whether Zuckerberg was duping the ConnectU founders by working on Facebook while ostensibly in their employ is addressed much more decisively than in the book--and it's not favorable to Zuckerberg.

At the end, he's allowed a little bit of a denouement, and who knows what will happen in script revisions. But for now, I can see why an entertainment industry source said that the producers have been hoping to cast an audience-friendly young actor. The onscreen version of Zuckerberg could easily come across as utterly obnoxious.

Actually, to put it bluntly, none of the main characters are all that sympathetic. The Winklevoss twins come across as aggressive and vindictive; Saverin is neurotic and money-obsessed; onetime Facebook exec Sean Parker is a scheming lush; and then-Harvard president Larry Summers, who has a small role, is pretty much just a blowhard. That probably doesn't bode well for the producers' attempt to actually film parts of the movie on Harvard's campus, since I'm fairly sure that a prestigious university doesn't want to be depicted onscreen as a hub for serious douchebaggery.

When I read "The Accidental Billionaires," I predicted that it was safely fluffy enough that Facebook (and Zuckerberg) probably wouldn't have much of a problem with it. But the screenplay for "The Social Network" is edgier and meaner. At one point, during a fired-up moment for the ConnectU guys, Cameron Winklevoss says of Zuckerberg, "Let's f***ing gut that little nerd!" And when Zuckerberg is told by the Winklevosses' lawyer that the twins come from a family worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Zuckerberg retorts with, "Or roughly the amount I paid in income tax last year."

Oh, snap.

On a totally different note: Does "The Social Network" botch it when it comes to discussions of technology, venture capital, and Web development? Not really. I sent a few lines of dialogue depicting a Harvard computer science class to an engineer friend who said that it was fairly spot-on. Of course, the dialogue in the court deposition scenes is a little more exciting than it probably was in real life. But let's face it: this is Hollywood.

And the awesomest-slash-cheesiest line? In my opinion, the award goes to Tyler Winklevoss in yet another scene where he and Cameron are talking about how to get back at Zuckerberg: "I'm six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me."