Sunday, October 3, 2010

Don't piss off the Harvard students!

I've been reading a few reviews of that The Social Network, just because it's hard to believe that a film about a computer thingy can be that good. (I still remember The Recruit, with a thrilling scene of Colin Farrell trying to carry his open laptop as he runs away from Al Pacino.) So disclaimer here, I haven't seen the film and am not going to comment on its quality. I'm just going to use this as an opportunity to ask: Authenticity or story excitement-- if you can have only one, which is better? (And I'm sure that's sometimes a false dichotomy, but really, no college is likely to be authentically an interesting film opportunity.)

Anyway, the reviews all seem good except for those written by Harvard people, like a law school professor who points out that Harvard undergraduates do not, in fact, talk in witty GB Shaw patter. And then there's this article (with a truly clever headline) by a fellow who actually knew the Facebook founder and lived down the hall from him.

So the article writer points out that the Harvard of this film owes a lot more to old movies and TV shows about Harvard than the reality, that dining clubs are not in fact the only places to meet future important people, that the WASPs don't really rule, that no one wears madras.

And I'm sure he's correct. There have been films made about one of my alma maters (U of Chicago), and they never get it remotely right, not the culture, not the ethos, not the ethnic mix, not even the weather. They're always presenting the school as one filled with rich upper-class kids, you know, like a Midwestern Brown, and in fact, probably the #1 parental occupation there is the low-paid college professor. It is an expensive but not rich place. :)

So I'm willing to accept the writer's assertion that the Harvard of the film isn't much like the Harvard he and Zuckerberg (the FB founder) attended. But what if Sorkin (the filmmaker) has the more filmable version of Harvard? What if his "striving Jewish kid up against an entrenched
WASP establishment" scenario provides more conflict than the real story would?

What do you all think? If you're writing a historical novel, how authentic does it have to be? Okay with no B-52s at the Battle of Waterloo, but what about inventing an argument among Napoleon's generals that distracts him so that he can't focus on the battle plan?

I remember reading that the Apollo 13 astronauts (no, that wasn't just a movie :) said that the disputes the film shows them having never happened, that they were unified in their decisions and didn't argue at all. Well, that's great, but three guys agreeing doesn't make for a great dark moment in a film.

But is there a point where you'd draw the line? Let's talk about the issues here. Is it okay if the Harvard of Sorkin's film isn't the real Harvard? What do you do when you're writing about real places and times?

Oh, and something most of us don't worry about because we make up our people. But Zuckerberg actually exists, and his friend down the hall says that the "Z" in the film is not like the real guy. Is that a problem? Do we have an ethical responsibility here?

Over to you! I don't know the answer, but as I was reading the review, I found myself thinking, "Yeah, but Sorkin's vision is probably more interesting than reality!"


elfarmy17 said...

It matters when it comes to people, like Zuckerberg. There is an obligation to portray him authentically. When it comes to events (like arguments), that's more okay, and when it comes to places, it's annoying to those who know them well, but not ethically necessary to get right.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, apparently there wasn't any attempt to find out what he was about. I read an article that kind of said it was his own fault for not agreeing to help out with the film. But really, I think I would have made up a character and a company. Just because he's a public figure and can't sue doesn't mean it's okay to use him like that.

Of course, I think of his parents and how it'll bother them.
And most of the other characters apparently have the names of his real associates.

Livia Blackburne said...

Yeah, the whole thing about the finals clubs is kind of silly. Very few people actually cared about them, and only about 10% of the student body were members. Plus, it's a diverse campus. When I was there, it was 25% Asian.

I'm kind of interested in the legal aspects. How can the movie folks make a movie portraying Zuckerberg like this and not end up getting sued?

Evangeline Holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Evangeline Holland said...

The Social Network is based on a book (or a mash of two books, I think) about the making of Facebook, written by the co-founder who was shouldered out of the company. In fact, Zuckerberg treated his employees to a screening of The Social Network this past weekend, thereby showing outsiders he is unruffled by the film. Plus, if I am not mistaken, movies are protected by the First Amendment (the basis for dismantling the Production Code in the 1960s).

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

I think telling the true story in very few cases would be riveting enough for a full-length feature. And there's the problem: because it is supposed to be a true story, there should be some attempt at honesty. I also read this movie was based on 2 books, and so it's not as if the director is making it up-- but I think perspective is personal. Sometimes people at the same event can have totally different takes on it. Add a dash of Hollywood... and maybe it's not that reflective of reality anymore.

Edittorrent said...

Well, I'm all for the first amendment, but there really are consequences, and I'm wondering how authors would deal with that. Do you think there's an ethical issue here?
Here's an article that seems to be unable to distinguish between the real fellow and the "mean" "social autist" of the film. Both are named Zuckerberg, but I'm not sure that the one is the other.
It's a real conundrum. And Z is worth billions, and maybe it doesn't bother him. But he's 26, and even if he's rich, he still can get hurt feelings, I'm sure.

I don't know the answer, but I do think it's an issue. The law does too-- if Z weren't a public figure, the filmmakers could probably be sued.
I wouldn't want to tell authors they can't do what they want, like use Richard Nixon as a villain, but I guess because this "kid" is my son's age, I feel kind of sympathetic for him. Especially since apparently much of the film never happened-- and everyone will think it did.

Livia, how does it feel to see how "wrong" the film gets a place you know? It's more interesting, certainly, to have these exclusive societies contrasted with the public Facebook-- a motif, exclusion v. inclusion.

But Shakespeare didn't worry about Richard III's feelings, and that's for the best. :)

But beyond the ethics and legality, let's look at the writing issue-- do we lose something if we're not authentic? What if we are?

I usually make up towns for my stories, even if in my head they're based on real places. I think that's actually so that I don't feel the need to get it "Right". And I know how annoyed I was as a reader when I was reading a book set in my own town, and Ohio Street was running the wrong way. That mistake made me doubt the book, where if it was a made-up town, well, it wouldn't have been a mistake.

So what do you do when you base a story on something "real"?

Karen said...

I think the filmmaker/ storyteller's primary job is to tell an entertaining story. If the story was inspired by real people and events, but those events as they actually happened aren't compelling enough without more than a little fictionalizing (inventing dialog), then all names should be changed. Tom Wolfe did an excellent job in I am Charlotte Simmons. His invented university rang true.
I don't understand why the names wouldn't be changed. If Facebook were changed to "Headspace" or something, we'd get the veiled reference. What is gained from using real names? It seems like asking for trouble for no reason.

C.L. Gray said...

Please... if you are going to tell a historical story, then please get the history right and portray the people accurately. Why? So, later, as an historian, I don't have to contend with this: "Of course so-and-so happened. I saw it in the movies."

The damage to history that is done by talking people twenty feet high is very hard to overcome. (And sometimes it can't be undone)

Jenny Maloney said...

I think there's another difficulty with presenting people as 'accurate' in movies or in books: a writer/film-maker just can't know what went on inside a person's head, even if that person is right there telling him XYorZ. Let's say Zuckerman had opted to work with the film-makers and tell them what was going through his head when A happened--isn't it possible that he would have made himself a more flattering version of himself?

When discussring literature it's generally frowned upon to assume authorial intention for that same reason. A writer may or may not know exactly what she (or he) wanted to talk about. I think it's the same for anyone who is being presented in any format...and that as long as the person presented has a platform to defend himself (and I think it's pretty safe that Zuckerman does) then it's fair to go for a good story rather than historical accuracy.

As far as history goes, every time a movie comes out about a historical figure, there is always a series of specials, books, magazine articles, etc. that proclaim the 'Truth' about the subject matter. I understand the historian's frustration but I also think it's important to get people interested in history and if a movie or book does that, then I say more power to it.

Wes said...

I believe that if an author is representing his/her story as history or biography, the story has to be accurate. Pop culture is too easily mislead by shallow presentations. True, the story is the most important part, but I see no reason the underpinnings of a good story cannot be accurate.

The 1979 movie Breaking Away won one academy award and was nominated for five others, and it accurately represented Indiana University and the town-gown conflict in Bloomington where I attended grad school.

Tracy Kidder won a Pulitzer Prize for SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE about what could have been a snoozer of a story, the development by Data General of its 32-bit computer.....yawn. But the book was filled with conflict, tension, divorces, nervous breakdowns, deception, rivalary, etc. that seized the reader's interest. I worked there and knew some of the people in the book. They and the environment were accurately portrayed. Every 100 feet in the hallways was a stretcher and a bottle of oxygen. Talk about tension. Accuracy won't sell a novel generally, but there is enough drama in most significant situations to craft a good story if a writer looks hard enough.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I was just reading a less-good book about HP that mentioned how they had a project to develop a 32-bit computer, and corporate politics made it impossible, and the developers had to sit and watch DG do it!

There's a novel called Hot Stuff by the incomparable Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and it sort of spins off from the founding of Apple. It's not Apple, and the two founders aren't Jobs and Woz, and it's really more of a romance anyway. But I thought that was a good solution-- it uses some of the conflicts of this important piece of corporate history (the wonk vs. the marketer, the takeover by the venture capitalist), but beyond the outlines, there's no attempt to make it be about Apple. (I gather her husband was a computer engineer back then, so she might have gotten some ideas from him!)


Leah said...

Making his motivation the final club is a narrative choice. Characters need goals. The film is NOT presenting itself as a documentary, so doubt about its historicity is misplaced. We know there will be fictions in order to shape reality into a coherent narrative with beginning, middle, and end.

The annals of cinema are rich with non-documentary historical movies.

This film is accurate where it counts, in portraying the antisocial, Aspergers-ish abrasiveness of Zuckerberg's personality.

Wes said...

Gee, I didn't know anyone was behind DG. Just kidding. DG was always known for having a "hot box", computer talk for good price-performance. Where they lagged was in marketing......where I worked.