Why The Social Network shouldn’t work (and why it does)

by on December 11, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

The Social Network Movie Poster

When I emerged from the cinema after seeing The Social Network, my friend asked, “So what did you think?” and I replied, “Fantastic. Brilliant. I loved it. I just don’t know why”. Now I do.

While every screenwriting class is prefaced with the William Goldman caveat that “No-one knows anything”, you will invariably be assailed with a bunch of things that you should and shouldn’t do if you want to have any chance of getting your film made and engaging your audience. In The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin takes that rule book, puts it through the shredder, torches the remnants, and scatters the ashes on the Santa Ana winds.

Why the Social Network shouldn’t work

Here are the screenwriting “rules” at which Aaron Sorkin cocks his snoot:

“Your protagonist should be likeable” – This is a commonly heard piece of screenwriting wisdom. How many of us have received the screenwriting note, “Make him more likeable”? Heaven help the no-name writer who presented a character as unlikeable as the Mark Zuckerberg we see in Sorkin’s The Social Network.

“Scenes shouldn’t be longer than 3 pages” – Students will often ask, “How long should a scene be?” and you’ll say that most dramatic scenes are between 1-3 pages. A scene that is 4-5 pages almost always signals the amateur status of the writer and would have the average script editor calling for a nip and tuck. How long is the opening scene of The Social Network? 10 pages. That’s not a scene. That’s a saga.

“Don’t use voiceover” – Lots of novice screenwriters like to use voiceover but it almost always undermines the drama because it prevents the audience from inferring what the character is feeling (as it does in Animal Kingdom). Sorkin follows his 10-page opening scene with 4 pages of voiceover. Count them: 1, 2, 3, 4.

“Don’t use flashbacks” – Flashbacks too typically diminish dramatic tension. After his 10-page opening scene and 4 pages of voiceover, Sorkin takes us to a deposition scene that makes us realise that the first 14 pages of the film were actually a flashback (or the deposition is a flashforward – another “no no”.)

“Your character should have an arc” – The story paradigm I hold near and dear is the Hero’s Journey, which takes the protagonist through a series of 12 steps that transforms them from flawed to enlightened. Doesn’t happen in The Social Network. The Mark Zuckerberg at the end of the film has endured all sorts of trials but is as clueless about himself and the world as the avaricious dork of that breathtaking opening scene.

“You need to pose a dramatic question” – I am very big on this. I tell my students that, by the end of Act 1, you should pose a dramatic question that the audience wants answered and that the question will almost always start with “Will … ?”:

  • Will the sheriff kill the great white shark?
  • Will Indiana Jones beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark of the Covenant?
  • Will Harry get Sally?
  • Will Michael Corleone honour his family or his principles?
  • Will the 40 year old Virgin get laid?

The Social Network offers up no dramatic question we’re burning to have answered. Will Facebook become a success? In case you haven’t heard, it does. Will he have to settle with the Winklevi for having stolen their idea? It was in all the papers. Will the man who lets others connect with their friends lose his one and only true friend? Ditto. Will he end up with Erica? This subplot has just 3 beats so it’s certainly not the dramatic question that’s driving the narrative (though I will have more to say on this later).

You could say that we stick around to find out “How did Facebook become a success?” but “How?” is rarely as interesting as “Will?” and I for one couldn’t give a toss how Facebook came into being. (I would, on the other hand, be enthralled to explore the story of its demise.)

“You should like the protagonist and hate the antagonist” – I would generally recommend that we are given a reason to respect the antagonist, as we are with Anton Sugar (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men. However, on balance, it’s generally accepted that our sympathies should be more with the protagonist than the antagonist. Yet, when Cameron Winklevoss finally overcomes his fine breeding and respect for the Harvard brotherhood to declare, “Let’s fucking gut that little nerd”, didn’t you think, “Yeah, and about time too!!!”. Sorkin, the iconoclast, has us rooting for the privileged, chiselled Aryan antagonists against our nerdy Jewish protagonist. How dare he?

“The climax should pit protagonist vs antagonist” – Storytelling for me is about the ending. Taking the audience to a place of unbearable tension and then resolving the crisis in a way that releases a torrent of emotion. Sorkin uses the legal actions as the vehicle to help us tell Mark Zuckerberg’s story but feels no compulsion to drive it to a nerve-jangling verdict.

“They’re going to want to settle?”
“Oh yeah.”

“Screenplays should be 110 pages” – Any idiot knows that screenplays should be 110 pages. (Any idiot used to know that screenplays should be 120 pages until the attention span of the average cinema-goer was reduced through excessive internet exposure – and Facebook use – by 10%) How long is the script for The Social Network? 162 pages. That’s not a screenplay; that’s an environmental catastrophe.

So why does The Social Network work?

The simple answer would be that Aaron Sorkin is a genius whose brilliant dialogue lets him get away with things that would condemn the screenplays of we mere mortals.

“She was under oath.”
“Then I guess that would be the first time somebody lied under oath.”

“I’m six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me.”

“From the look of it, they want to sell me a Brooks Brothers franchise.”

“I’m an entrepreneur.”
“What was your latest preneur?”

“He was right. California’s the place we’ve got to be.”
“You’re Jed Clampett?

But, Sorkin isn’t just a genius of the spoken word. He is a master dramatist. And there are a whole bunch of rules to which he does adhere that allow him to break others.

“Drama is conflict” – The greatest rule of all. In my Introduction to Screenwriting course, I tell my students that if they only take one thing away from the weekend, let is be this. Drama is conflict. And while Sorkin might be willing to ignore some of the outlying territories in the nation of screenwriting rules, he bows down and prays at this particular altar. There is conflict at every turn:

  • Mark Zuckerberg vs Erica
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs the exclusive Harvard Final Clubs
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs the Harvard Academic board
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs the Winklevi
  • Cameron Winklevoss vs Tyler Winklevoss & Divya
  • The Winklevi vs Larry Summers
  • Mark Zuckerberg vs Eduardo
  • Eduardo vs Sean Parker
  • Eduardo vs his psycho girlfriend
  • Sean Parker vs the police
  • Sean Parker vs Mark Zuckerberg

Conflict between us and them. Conflict within us. Conflict within them. Brilliant. And necessary. But still not sufficient. There is one more rule that Sorkin honours that allows him to get away with a 162 page doorstop about an unlikeable protagonist who doesn’t grow and betrays his best friend.

“The audience must connect with your protagonist” – When I talk about what you need to establish during the Ordinary World sequence of your screenplay – the 7-12 pages that precede the inciting incident or the Call to Adventure – this is the one I have front and centre. We don’t need to “like” the character. Indeed, likeable characters tend to be nowhere near as engaging as outrageously maladjusted individuals (e.g. Miles in Sideways). But we absolutely need to connect to the protagonist and Sorkin achieves this in at least 4 ways.

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #1: Special powers

We tend to be intrigued by characters who possess powers that exceed our own and Zuckerberg certainly qualifies in this regard. He’s prodigiously intelligent – a gold-plated nerd – as we discover when he hacks into the campus websites to create Facemash.com and when he leaves the lecture on Operating Systems not because it’s beyond him but because it’s beneath him.

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #2: Wit

Humour is another way a character can engage us even when we might otherwise be entirely outraged by their actions. Think Phil Connors in Groundhog Day or the eponymous Bad Santa. And Mark Zuckerberg scores here too. He’s very witty – or, at least, his character benefits from having had his dialogue crafted by a very witty screenwriter.

“Can I ask what part of the intern’s job will they need to be able to do drunk?”
“You’re right. A more relevant test would be seeing if they can keep a chicken alive for a week.”

Acerbic, yes. But, wouldn’t you love it if your tongue were that sharp?

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #3: Chutzpah

Chutzpah is another way to engage an audience because we admire (and yearn to be like) people who have the balls to do and say things that we can’t. Think about how Oscar Schindler wins over the Nazis in the opening scene of Spielberg’s Oscar-winner. Mark Zuckerberg has king-sized cojones.

“As for any charges stemming from the breach of security, I believe I deserve some sort of recognition from this Ad Board.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Yes.”

Why we connect to Mark Zuckerberg #4: Empathy

The big Daddy where connection is concerned is empathy. We see the protagonist undergo a pain that we’ve experienced – that’s part of being human – and our hearts go out to them. This is the real secret, I think, to understanding why we continue to engage with The Social Network at a character level even if we aren’t particularly interested in what transpires in the plot.

Mark Zuckerberg might not have a charismatic personality like Ferris Bueller or Indiana Jones or R.P. McMurphy, but that’s the whole point. He’s like us. He doesn’t always say the right thing in social situations. He’s a weedy nerd in a world where girls like guys “who row crew”. Which brings me back to the consideration of the dramatic question, “Will Mark Zuckerberg get Erica?”

No, I don’t think that we want him to get the girl, and, no, we don’t keep watching to find out how it resolves, and, no, it doesn’t drive the drama. But, without this overarching narrative element, I think the whole film falls in heap.

Yes, there are only 3 beats on this subplot but what extraordinary beats they are. It begins with that stellar opening scene where Zuckerberg is both brilliant and gauche and Erica shows extraordinary forbearance before he finally pushes her over the edge by suggesting he will open doors that would remain closed to a mere BU graduate. She dismisses him in a way that admits little possibility of reconciliation and, like a Greek chorus, prepares us for what we’re about to witness:

“Listen. You’re going to be successful and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

The second beat is almost as good. Having achieved every male undergraduate’s dream of a blowjob in the toilets from a woman who doesn’t even know how to spell “reciprocity” – and feeling that he’s finally made it on this hallowed campus – he stumbles on Erica again. Surely, now, he’ll have regained her respect? No, again she humiliates him both consciously and unconsciously.

“You’re not a real person, Mark. You write your bullshit from a dark room because you’re a failure at human contact”.

Ouch.

Then she adds, “Good luck with your video game”. What makes this even more cutting is that she has no idea she’s demeaning his achievement. She genuinely has no clue what he’s done.

This is the classic Ordeal of the Hero’s Journey where the antagonist holds up a mirror to the protagonist and lets them see their flaw. In a traditional narrative, the hero responds by changing. In a tragedy, they blunder on as they are. What is Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction to this chastening experience?

“We have to expand”.

And then we come to the poignant final beat.

I’ve heard the ending of The Social Network derided as its “Rosebud” moment, a reference to the sentimental McGuffin that binds together the life story of Citizen Kane. But I think it’s the perfect ending.

Here we have a guy who, in the pursuit of fortune and fame, has been happy to sacrifice the one friend he had in the world. And now he has it all. He’s worth $25 billion – the youngest billionaire in the world. He can have anything he wants, except the one thing he wants most of all. The girl.

In the final moments of the film, the founder of the world’s all-consuming social network is reduced to the same level as any of his gazillion members – pathetically refreshing the screen to see whether, in the last five seconds, the woman he loves has accepted his electronic request for friendship.

Refresh … refresh … FADE TO BLACK

Aaron Sorkin is brilliant. And he does break a truckload of rules in The Social Network. But his weighty script does have sound dramatic fundamentals, and, in Mark Zuckerberg, he has created a character who might be “unlikeable” but his yearnings, failings and disappointments still remind us more than a little of ourselves. The Social Network works. And that’s why I think it works. Why do you think it works? Please comment below.

PS Went to see it again last night and liked it even more the second time. Surely it will win the Oscar for Best Screenplay?

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Other screenwriting articles you might be interested in:

Where I disagree with the Hero’s Journey
A new character-driven Hero’s Journey
How to write a logline
How to write better loglines
The secret to subplots
The one subplot you really need
What should happen at the midpoint
10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Shaun Wilson December 11, 2010 at 3:01 pm

“Fantastic. Brilliant. I loved it. I just don’t know why” – is exactly how I felt about Sorkin’s other masterpiece, The West Wing.

I often say to people Sorkin is a dangerous genius – while his work is easily some of the best writing humanity has ever seen, the most obvious highlights of how he writes are all the things newbie writers are (rightly) taught to avoid. For example, anyone who tried to replicate the energy and wit of a Walk & Talk would probably just end up with pages of useless dialogue with no drama that any script editor would put through a shredder.

Very much enjoyed this dissection of the rules he breaks and why he gets away with it. Which ultimately is, of course, because he follows the most important rules (like drama is conflict) and doesn’t let the lesser ones get in the way.

Anyway, rules are just a shorthand for crafting an engaging story. Proof’s in the pudding. You can’t argue rules against a story that engaged millions.

Shaun Wilson December 11, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I just realised I should add a caveat – West Wing did have the one obvious thing that will make you love it – a group of characters you fell in love with near immediately, unlike Social Network. I was just always dumbfounded at how much he got away with crazy structuring and dense dialogue few can pull off.

Much apologies for talking more about West Wing than Social Network ;)

Jimbo December 12, 2010 at 5:25 am

Completely disagree with the idea that the film breaks the rules. It works because it follows the rules – The Social Network is classic hero’s journey: see http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html and the associated videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/clickokDOTcoDOTuk

Matt December 13, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Fantastic analysis there, much to digest and mull over – thanks Allen!

My pet line to friends was always, “How the hell did Sorkin make a film about a bunch of rich kids suing each other so goddamn engaging?”

For me, the instant connection to his character was simple – he’s the underdog. The nerd who doesn’t fit in and that’s why it is incredibly satisfying to see him defeat the wealthy and popular Winklevi.
Another strong lure to keep us on his side during his many obnoxious moments, was that he doesn’t give a shit about money. Something we all aspire to – his special power.

Adrienne December 14, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Personally, I think the rules are there as a guide and are a great way for young writers to learn ‘good writing’. But in the end, writing is art and film is art – so I don’t think it really matter what rules are broken or followed if the film works. Just a thought

Allen Palmer December 14, 2010 at 6:08 pm

You’re right, Adrienne. My point exactly. It doesn’t matter what you do … as long as it works.

Anuj Mehta December 17, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for your insight & analysis that make pertinent points.

One thing I ain’t sure about – lack of an arc. Yup, as you put it, the protagonist remains clueless till the end; his personality doesn’t change.

However, a cold person, with perhaps zero empathy, or any potential for it, eventually highlights pain within. Does it mean he has changed? Maybe, no. It does show that he could be more humane from now on.

He does take on Parker for being extra mean in the end, and when you see him being alone and stating that he is a good guy, well, I see a change in that guy.

As Sorkin says, the guy becomes Tragic-Hero from Anti-Hero in the end. That touches you.

Couldn’t agree more that the film is a riveting drama in conflict, with tremendous rhythm and pacing. Yet, another angle, that I may see differently: the protagonist may not be ‘likeable’ per se, but he indeed he is so fascinating that you want to keep watching this jerk in action :-)

lara December 28, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I saw the dramatic question as being, “Will Mark learn to connect to others?” The answer is no, but I found myself hoping he would all the way through.

Also, maybe the concept of “character arc” can be broadened here. While Mark doesn’t change per se, our perception of him does, bookended by direct statements from Erica at the beginning and the legal assistant at the end. We start off thinking he’s an asshole, but come to realize he’s not — he’s just trying to be. And I think the fact that he has the potential not to be is what fuels our investment in the dramatic question (as I saw it) — all he has to do is stop trying to be an asshole, and he’ll connect with people in the way that his longing for Erica suggests he wants to.

Jeremy Dylan January 6, 2011 at 11:22 pm

People building their careers in an attempt to impress girls is possibly the overarching theme of Sorkin’s ouvre. There was a line in SPORTS NIGHT about it, but I’m darned if I can remember it.

Also, from the man himself (with bearing on this article): “People who don’t know anything tend to make up fake rules, the real rules being considerably more difficult to learn.”

Karen Pearlman January 13, 2011 at 1:51 pm

slightly off topic, but I’m very curious about the rules “don’t use voice-over” and “don’t use flashbacks”. I have heard these often before, and certainly seen many cases where they are ineffectively used (or used by the editor to try to salvage something that isn’t working on screen) but I’m not sure this is the fault of the devices themselves. Voice over and flashback are two things that distinguish the cinema as a unique medium. They offer, I would argue, something unique to be exploited in the cinematic medium. They have to be used artfully, but when they are they can actually increase dramatic tension. Maybe the rule should be ‘only use voice over or flashbacks to increase dramatic tension’!

Allen Palmer January 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Absolutely, Karen. Lots of my favourite films use voiceover: The Apartment, LA Confidential, American Beauty, Ferris Bueller, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Bridget Jones’s Diary. And Pulp Fiction, An Officer and a Gentleman and There’s something about Mary all make good use of flashback. I would just discourage the developing writer from using either because the big difference in moving from prose to writing for the screen is this need to create tension in the moment and to show rather than tell. It’s too easy to have a character say something in voiceover rather than reveal it through action but just because we’ve been told it doesn’t mean that we feel it. This was a big problem in Easy A. She tells us she needs to increase her social standing but nothing we see on the screen would indicate that was the case. It’s also too easy to think, oh, yeah, I need to reveal that this has happened, so let’s just stop the main narrative and have a flashback. I try to get my students to learn to write for the screen without these devices – and then avail themselves of them either when they’ve mastered the basics or they’ve run out of viable alternatives.

Carla Smith January 20, 2011 at 10:36 am

I found the above treatment of The Social Network fascinating as a developing screenwriter. Steven Pressfield says ” I have a theory, which could be wrong, that do- ing the fearless thing is what creates charisma and that you can tell a successful person by someone who does what scares them.” and “You’d think it would be easy to be your- self or do what you love or say what you believe, but it’s not. We get worried about rejection and then our censor doesn’t let us go beyond it.” Mark Zuckerberg is fearless. And witty. And brilliant. And the most socially mal-adjusted kid in the movie creates the social platform that every well-adjusted kid in the world craves. The irony is fascinating and poignant. I think that when a story reveals a basic human need such as love and belonging in a hero who is naively immune to that same need in others you build authentic empathy; you instill hope that this person will be okay. And a big plus is that Eduardo is SO real, such a good friend, and in touch with his feelings. Eduardo’s character is key. I think that if we didn’t know that Facebook becomes the success that it does, that if it was all fiction, the ending of the story might not work. If we didn’t know that Mark Zuckerberg really does end up okay, it might be less satisfying.

Thunder Badger January 27, 2011 at 12:37 am

The reason the film is so good is that he doesn’t write about the normal ‘hero & villain’, he writes about real people. There is no black & white here, only shades of grey, as in life. We identify with nearly all the characters because they all have some justification, Erica, Eduardo, Mark, even Sean Parker & the Winklevi.

In the end everybody wins and everybody loses, just like life.

Allen Palmer January 27, 2011 at 6:31 am

You’re right, Kevin. I would say that the characters are shaded. But I would add that in any good fictional film the hero isn’t just white and the villain isn’t just black. You want to humanise the protagonist by giving them some failings and do the same thing to the antagonist by giving him some redeeming quality. They have contradictions. That’s my definition of good characterisation – as I explain here.

Thunder Badger January 28, 2011 at 12:51 am

You’re right about the characters being shaded with contradictions, possibly the best example of this is Hannibal Lecter. At the end of Silence/Lambs we are almost cheering him when we realise he’s going to eat Dr Chilton, who hasn’t endeared himself to us because he’s seeking advancement thru Lecter, but is that bad? Chilton is in a dead end job taking care of society’s dregs, he can’t even get a date with Clarice, Hannibal has more chance!

But Chiltons ambition costs lives, notably the 2 sergeants, the ambulance crew & everyone Lecter goes on to kill, so it’s fitting he pays. The Social Network does the same thing albeit with a lower body count. Mark freezes out Eduardo because Ed ‘freezes’ the accounts, and both their actions seem justified. Both pay as Mark loses his only friend, in turn Ed loses his shares, but both are rewarded, Mark with success & Ed with a settlement.

This occurs for most of the characters, but what I also found interesting is Sorkin’s portrayal of the creative process itself. No one person has full credit here, even Sean Parker has the brainwave of dropping ‘The’ from ‘TheFacebook.com’, showing that creation is often a group effort.

Obviously he’s covering an actual event, but such things are often lost in Hollywood biopics. This film is probably the nearest thing to seeing a stage play on screen, a truly original insight.

Thanks for your website by the way, I’m new here but I’m learning a lot!

Jeremy Dylan February 14, 2011 at 10:55 am

A character need not be likable – after all, the film isn’t asking us to actual hang out with them in real life – merely that we like watching them.

Is Walter White likable?
Is Tony Soprano likable?
Is Hannibal Lecter/Lector/Lektor (take your preference) likable?
Is Richard Nixon likable (Hopkins or Langella)?

Do we like watching them?

Allen Palmer February 14, 2011 at 11:04 am

A better objective for your characterisation than “likeable” is “engaging”. Why do we want to watch them?

Jeremy Dylan February 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm

And often the more likeable a character is, the less engaging they are.

If Gregory House were to become well-adjusted, friendly and polite, he’d be more likeable but less engaging.

Xiao Niu February 17, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I think one other way that Aaron makes the audience connect with Zuckerberg is that “he has a strong desire for something we all want.” He wants status, recognition, exclusivity, to be special. These are all things that which we wish we can have, but rarely have the guts to state out right. And he states this in the opening scene, not directly, but through the sub-text. It sets up the whole movie, tell us who he is, what he is about and make us connect with him right away. Yes, I want those things too.

Allen Palmer February 17, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Yes, I think it’s true, Xiao. Absolutely. Wanting something. And feeling like you’re excluded from the party.

Pat Garrett April 19, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Hi Allen, thanks for your views on the Social Network.

I agree, it’s a great film, but I have a different take on this story, which you may not have considered.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but to work out ‘whose’ story a film actually is, is best appreciated by ‘which character’ has the greatest journey (who changes the most) during a film! If this is true, then the protagonist is not actually Mark Zuckerberg, but Eduardo Saverin! If you re-analyse the rules of filmmaking with this protagonist, then perhaps you will realise that Aaron Sorkin did not break as many rules as you think!

The reason I say Eduardo is the protagonist is that ‘he’ is the one that suffers and changes the most during the story. Zuckerberg is just the foil through which Eduardo changes and realises “the world is not as ideal as he believes.” If it is actually his story, then we, the audience, ‘do’ identify with him, because he is the one that is crapped on by Zuckerberg and all the others!

I hope this viewpoint helps your analysis,
Cheers, Pat Garrett.

Allen Palmer April 20, 2011 at 6:15 am

An interesting take, Pat, but I’m not sure I agree. How does Eduardo change through the film? What was his initial flaw? I would say that he just remains as he is and becomes merely the rock-steady benchmark by which we gauge the demise of (former) best friend Zuckerberg. And the protagonist is the character who has the goal and drives the story. That’s not Eduardo. That’s Zuckerberg, who has two ultimately conflicting goals: the create Facebook and win Erica. In some films, the hero is not the protagonist (eg Dead Poets, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Man Walking), and you could say that Eduardo is more “heroic” than Zuckerberg, but it’s not he is confronted with his failings; it’s Zuckerberg – which makes Zuckerberg the hero, albeit a tragic one.

Nic April 15, 2012 at 7:11 pm

The quote that convinced me that the screenwriter of this film was at the highest echelon of his trade was this….

Mark Zuckerberg:

I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try – but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention – you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.

Simon Tonkin December 10, 2012 at 11:37 pm

I don’t like the ending. To me it was an unconvincing tack-on (where was this supposed suffering during the body of the film?), thus the real lack of transformation of almost any sort in the main character was the real flaw of this film and why it never could have won the gong for best picture. There was no elixir, no edification and no audience reward for staying to the end.

Allen Palmer December 11, 2012 at 9:29 am

Simon, your comment suggests that all films must have transformative climaxes. The film is a tragedy – in setting up a site that enables friendship, Zuckerberg lost the one friend he had, and was unable to win the one woman who motivated his quest. There was an elixir – wisdom – that anyone watching that final scene would have inferred.

Simon Tonkin December 28, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Hi Allen,
I agree that if this film was a tragedy, the elixir would be wisdom and there would be no need for a transformative ending. But, was it a tragedy?
A tragedy requires more than just a cataclysmic fall by a main character. Like any genre, it requires a corresponding emotional response from the audience.
I picked up some quotes:

Tragedy (Ancient Greek: τραγῳδία, tragōidia, “he-goat-song”[1]) is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in the viewing.

Tragedy is a genre that combines a story of human suffering with a sense of audience fulfilment.

Tragedy is a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror.

A true tragedy should evoke pity and fear on the part of the audience. According to Aristotle, pity and fear are the natural human response to spectacles of pain and suffering–especially to the sort of suffering that can strike anybody at any time. Aristotle goes on to say that tragedy effects “the catharsis of these emotions”–in effect arousing pity and fear only to purge them, as when we exit a scary movie feeling relieved or exhilarated.

And, that is why I believe the film fails as a tragedy, because we don’t sufficiently empathise with Zuckerberg. He is, as presented here by Sorkin, an alien with whom we cannot identify.
I mean, can you identify with this:

Mark Zuckerberg: Did you know there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?
Erica Albright: That can’t possibly be true.
Mark Zuckerberg: It is.
Erica Albright: What would account for that?
Mark Zuckerberg: Well first, an awful lot of people live in China. But, here’s my question: how do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs?
Erica Albright: I didn’t know they take SATs in China.
Mark Zuckerberg: They don’t. I wasn’t talking about China anymore, I was talking about me.

I can’t. I believe very few people could.
So, what emotion DO we feel in this film?
Exhilaration. As this little Uni student takes on the world and wins and goes to nobody-has-ever-been-there ville.
And we get to go with him.
It’s an adventure story with a corny sympathy/failed romance frame that just didn’t work for me.
Bottom line for me: no tragedy = give me an ending.

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