The Social Network is a masterpiece—does it matter that it bent the truth?

Screenshot: The Social Network (YouTube)
Page To ScreenIn Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

It’s become widely accepted that a movie adapting a novel should use its source as a guide rather than a strict blueprint. If a change would improve the film, then that change should be made. The book isn’t sacred, nor should it be. This becomes more complicated when it comes to nonfiction. It’s one thing to tweak the life of a fictional character, but do real people deserve to be depicted as accurately as possible? Some might say no on artistic grounds, arguing filmmakers should change a biography as readily as a novel if it suits the story being told, though the tolerance for futzing with the facts is often correlated to the quality of the result. There’s also a sliding scale depending on the media: Biopics get more creative license than documentaries. This isn’t an unreasonable position—anything scripted and acted, with a constructed mise-en-scène, is automatically forfeiting some authenticity in the name of artistry. Fiction is a common element of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, under the guise of “ecstatic truth” rather than literal fact; they’re widely acclaimed, whereas similar exaggerations and falsehoods were rightfully a scandal for Brian Williams.

The Social Network, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, is not a true story. Much of what it depicts of Mark Zuckerberg’s early days with Facebook is grounded in fact, and director David Fincher has boasted about its authenticity, pointing to the accuracy of such details as Zuckerberg’s beer choice. But what do such trivialities matter when the core complexity at the heart of its subject is largely invented?

Mezrich’s book, “based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents,” focuses on Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s one-time friend and partner, who was eventually forced out of Facebook. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who enlisted Zuckerberg’s help in programming a site and then claimed he stole their idea, also get heavy attention. The book is mostly told from their alternating perspectives; they were evidently Mezrich’s primary sources, and it’s just as apparent that Zuckerberg declined to participate. Despite being the key figure, he remains a cypher throughout; the rare forays into his thoughts or motives are explicitly described as guesses. “I really tried not to write in Mark’s voice as much because it wouldn’t be fair to him,” Mezrich said of this limitation.

The film makes Zuckerberg the lead and dominant character. The film is about its depiction of Zuckerberg, his drive its central theme. Jesse Eisenberg plays him as ruthless and cunning, a brilliant man who seethes with anger or condescension at anyone he sees as inferior or standing in his way. It’s a far more complex portrait than the book gives, and also less accurate.

Part of this must have been a function of dramatic necessity; the book depicts him as so single-minded about Facebook that he “didn’t have the capacity, or the interest, to hate anyone,” which isn’t as compelling as his onscreen version taking vengeance. Rather than Eisenberg’s antihero charisma, someone in the book describes Zuckerberg as “socially autistic,” with a “self-defeating awkwardness” that “had been so palpable, it had acted like a force field... a sort of reverse magnetism, pushing anyone nearby away.” The real version “certainly” apologized to a Harvard disciplinary board after a hacking spree, knowing what he did was wrong. In the film his tone isn’t conciliatory but defiant.

In contrast to the real Zuckerberg, it’s hard to imagine Eisenberg’s version, care of Aaron Sorkin, squirm in front of Congress, be wishy-washy about Holocaust deniers or Alex Jones, or act flummoxed about trolls using the site to harass or interfere in elections. Michael Cera is the actor who comes to mind for that depiction, not the man who would become Lex Luthor.

The complexity of the film version of Zuckerberg adds immeasurably to the The Social Network’s impact and power, but a change of this magnitude can’t help but strike a dangerous note with the hindsight of the past eight years. When The A.V. Club reviewed Zero Dark Thirty, another film whose accuracy was fretted over, the critic wrote that it “stands to become the dominant narrative about this important historical event, no matter its distortions, composite, or other slippery feints of storytelling. In that, it wields a dangerous power.” There’s a similar issue at play with The Social Network. The film defines Zuckerberg for many people, and given his centrality to today’s world, who knows what impact that’s had? Like the company that is its subject, The Social Network is a huge platform for its message, and it’s a problem when that message is less about the truth and more about emotional manipulation.

Of course, the real Zuckerberg must have some of the attributes the film depicts—he did create the most influential company of modern times and squeeze allies out of it, both of which require a certain amount of cold-bloodedness—which makes comparing the film’s depiction to the real person tricky. However, there’s no denying that other parts of The Social Network, just as central to its thesis about who Zuckerberg is, were more or less invented. Sorkin said the film is “absolutely nonfiction,” albeit “nonfiction about facts that are in dispute.” He also said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”

The film version of Zuckerberg is obsessed with Harvard’s elite social clubs, which he sees as a springboard to success and social validation. Saverin getting nominated for membership when Zuckerberg isn’t is depicted as a primary wedge between them. This isn’t, however, a major issue in the book. Saverin did indeed get “punched” for a club, but Zuckerberg never seems particularly jealous or even interested, except to the extent that it takes Saverin away from Facebook. As a dramatist, Sorkin cannily seized upon the detail; as a “historian,” he inflated something less than a molehill into a mountain.

More centrally, Zuckerberg is dumped in the opening sequence, an event that defines him in the film. It’s suggested that pining for Erica (Rooney Mara) out of both affection and pain fueled his drive with Facebook. His thoughts are never far from her, as seen by the purgatory the film’s ending leaves him in.

There are some elements of fact here. After the break-up, Zuckerberg immediately goes to create FaceMash, a site where co-eds are ranked by attractiveness. He did this in real life, also after having been stung romantically, though the book reports he was turned down, not broken up with. Mezrich suggests this was hardly a unique occurrence for him: “Maybe somewhere inside of Mark’s thoughts, he knew that blaming it all on a girl who had rejected him wasn’t exactly fair. How were this one girl’s actions different from the way most girls had treated Mark throughout high school and college?”

If the film changes Zuckerberg’s essential elements to make him look worse, it does the same with Saverin to make him look better (starting with the casting of Andrew Garfield). The book profiles Saverin at a time when he’s cringe-worthily immature. “Getting laid” is all he talks about or seems to think about, and not only does he not seem to see women as people, he barely treats them better than objects, considering them as math problems to be solved. “If I’m trying to optimize my chances of scoring with the hottest girl possible, I’ve got to stock my pond with the type of girls who are the most likely to be interested,” he says of hitting on Asian women. Zuckerberg’s focus on his work, and his apparently stable romantic relationship, can’t help but come off as respectable in comparison.

For the Winklevoss twins, the film’s biggest change is to downplay their campus-stud vibe; it even gives them girlfriends. This allows Fincher to present them as the honorable elite, who live lives of privilege but work hard academically and row on the school’s crew team. They conduct themselves with a code of honor—“We are gentlemen of Harvard! We don’t sue people!” one of them sputters—in contrast to their frat-boy vibe in the book. They patron the “Fuck Truck”—bussed-in co-eds who are guaranteed hookups—and generally come off as foes with less maturity and integrity. The book’s college-hijinks vibe makes it feel immature, especially compared to Fincher’s seductive filmmaking and Sorkin’s hyperliterate script. The film does a much better job of underlining the disconnect between the immaturity of the characters and the scale of their accomplishments.

Still, if the film isn’t accurate to Zuckerberg’s history, it is prescient about the personality type that would become dominant online in the subsequent years. The character’s coiled anger and nonstop sarcasm are very trollish, just as his FaceMash revenge campaign, waged from the safe distance of cyberspace, is reminiscent of the Gamergate harassment that would occur four years after the film’s release. Both elevate male victimhood, specifically the pain and humiliation that come from female rejection, into the kind of all-consuming fury for which every possible response counts as a proportional. Ultimately, this is why the film made such an impact, and why it continues to be discussed. It isn’t accurate, but it is true, ecstatically so.

Start with: The curious thing about either version is that even if they were 100 percent accurate, they’d still be incredibly out of date. How strange to have a story about Facebook that doesn’t mention its impact on the news industry, or data and privacy concerns, or people using it to spread misinformation, or the way social media can make people feel isolated. (Neither touch on the impact Facebook has had on society, but to the extent they do, it feels like a net positive.)

Perhaps more so than with other nonfiction works, your choice comes down to the storytelling more than the story. The Social Network is rightfully seen as one of the defining films of the decade. Still, you might begin with Mezrich, just so you have a better understanding of the truth before you see how Fincher and Sorkin manipulate it for dramatic effect. The facts can’t be ignored in favor of a story, no matter how well told.

Ryan is an A.V. Club contributor. His writing has also appeared in Reuters, MarketWatch, the WSJ, and other outlets. He writes a lot about finance but would rather be talking about books.