books to film

Book versus movie: The Facebook story is better told by the source of ‘The Social Network’

Ben Mezrich’s ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ is a far more rounded account of one of the greatest business successes of our time.

Even to those who may have forgotten everything else about the movie, the last scene of The Social Network remains unforgettable. Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Mark Zuckerberg, has sent a Facebook request to his ex, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and he is shown obsessively clicking the refresh button on his Facebook page to see if she has accepted his request. The film is a determined attack on the cult of Mark Zuckerberg, but that one scene does more to humanise him than any public relations exercise from Facebook ever will.

Moments earlier in the film, Zuckerberg was told by his lawyer that he is, basically, “a good guy” and that he should not try so hard to be an asshole. The lawyer meant it in reference to the case that the Winklevoss twins have brought against Zuckerberg, but he – or rather the character Jesse Eisenberg plays – is right to take the advice for his personal life, which is littered with the debris of his failed romance with Erica.

The scene is fictional, and so is the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, from which the film is adapted. Aaron Sorkin won an Oscar for his screenplay, but the real question is not whether he adapted the book faithfully (he did, if only in spirit). It is far more interesting to ask if the book and the movie portray a realistic picture of Facebook’s meteoric rise.

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The Social Network (2010).

The company has long denied any acknowledgement of the film/book and Zuckerberg has, on more than one occasion, spoken of his hurt at his skewed portrayal. (He has categorically stated that he may be many things but he is not the girl-obsessed parody of the book.) It is telling that while the film focuses on the conflict between the major stakeholders in the Facebook story, its strongest moments are less about the warring accounts of who wronged whom than about an ecosystem that let a bunch of outsiders overthrow the prevailing order. And for that, it has The Accidental Billionaires to thank.

The book, which came out in 2009, a year before The Social Network, is an almost entirely one-sided homage to Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s friend in Harvard and the first investor in the nascent website. Saverin came from wealth and was popular in Harvard for having made money in oil investments while still in his sophomore year. Mezrich portrays both Zuckerberg and Saverin as socially awkward outsiders whose inability to score with the girls was a persistent pain point.

Mezrich, who also attended Harvard, gives us a sneak peek into the workings of the college, where clubs rule the roost on the social calendar and academics is only an adjunct to finding the right fraternity to join. The Winklevoss twins, champion rowers, come up with an idea for a website called the Harvard Connection aimed at helping students date. Their inspiration: their own inability to meet suitable partners due to the demands of the Harvard life.

When the Winklevoss brothers hear about Zuckerberg whose coding skills are well-known on campus, they approach him with the idea for their website. While he agrees to help them, he actually decides to work on his own website, a broader, more general version of the Winklevoss template. With help from Saverin, Zuckerberg launches what was then called “the facebook”.

Both The Accidental Billionaires and The Social Network encapsulate, in their own way, the insular nature of an institution where nearly everything is geared towards climbing the prestige ladder, whose ultimate perk is finding the right girl to show off to your peers. The book is thus an entirely male environment, and it is hard to shake off the feeling that be it the expert coder or the Olympic rower, there is little else driving the most brilliant young minds than the search for the opposite sex.

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The Social Network (2010).

The key differences between the film and the book emerge from the demands of the respective medium. A more leisurely product than The Social Network, The Accidental Billionaires is an achievement of creative writing that can be read for its own sake, even if you are in the Zuckerberg camp and feel that he gets a raw deal.

An example is the scene introducing the Winklevoss brothers as they row on the Charles at 4 in the morning. In the book, the scene is a slow build to the brother’s magnetic athleticism, capturing the paradoxical nature of their ascetic practice as one of the most privileged members of a super-rich university. In the film, this scene wraps in a few seconds, and is unfortunately devoted more to dissing the Winklevosses’ Harvard competitors than to recording their stunning devotion to the sport.

This difference extends to other realms. Sorkin’s screenplay embellishes Mezrich’s material to make it more cinema-friendly. There is, for example, no Erica Albright in the book, while she is a central, if infrequently present, character in the film. The film goes so far as to suggest that the hurting memory of the first scene, in which she dumps Zuckerberg, propels him to behave as he does.

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The Social Network (2010).

It is also likely that the film did better than the book because in our attention deficit era, it is far easier to watch than to read. But that should not blind us to the charms of Mezrich’s project. Even if it were it not Mark Zuckerberg’s story, The Accidental Billionaires would have made an interesting beach read about the elitism and narcissism of those lucky enough to attend the Ivy Leagues.

But since this is Facebook we are talking about, the mounting tension of the website’s rather simple origins and outsize success lies more in the expectation than in the telling, a key contrast that Mezrich both benefits from and builds upon. From Zuckerberg’s alleged pilfering of the Winklevosses’ idea to the lawsuits that he finally faced, both from the brothers and Saverin, Mezrich thrashes out the details in crisp chapters. The book can thus read like a thriller, while sticking to an overall rubric of literary non-fiction.

The film is a more in-your-face beast, setting up its premise from the word go, and dispensing with chronology to offer the viewer a 360-degree view of the controversy. Within the first five minutes of its run time, we are in the lawyers’ chambers with Zuckerberg sitting opposite the Winklevosses in one setting and Saverin in the other. The story then runs back and forth, with Eisenberg introducing a measure of silken menace to the character that Mezrich’s on-the-page Zuckerberg lacks.

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Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker, the man who bankrolled Facebook when it started getting serious, an inspired casting choice that comes closest to how Mezrich portrays him in the book. A party animal with a taste for hard drugs, Parker is as different from Zuckerberg as a nerd can be from a jock, yet the two ultimately take Facebook from campus oddity to everyday essential.

Andrew Garfield’s choice for Saverin does not justify itself. Sorkin goes beyond the book’s premise of Zuckerberg being the villain of the piece by showing Saverin as someone who was not much interested in building the company once it moved from Harvard dorms to Silicon Valley. While this is a nice balancing touch missing from the book, the fresh-faced, earnest-looking Garfield hardly qualifies to play someone who would rather party than be on the desk, crunching numbers.

What the film does better than the book is inshining a more damaging light on the sexism that can thrive even in a supposedly enlightened environment. The Harvard women are mostly absent in the film and the few times we do see them is when they are falling over the Harvard men in club parties. One gets the feeling that the girls got into Harvard on some different, lesser criterion, so it is some relief when they finally protest a website that Zuckerberg makes to compare their hotness quotient, even if the scene is too brief.

As a David Fincher film, The Social Network is drenched in a rich palette of subdued colours that reproduces the dim, gorgeous lighting of Harvard dorms especially well. But in spite of its beauty and brisk pace, it is bested by Ben Mezrich’s book in leaving a lasting impression. In the absence of Zuckerberg’s inputs, the book does not always meet the burden of proof. But even alternative truths can be rescued by a detailed unravelling of events and exquisite prose. Mezrich’s account of one of the greatest business successes of our time amply demonstrates his gifts as a storyteller.

“Incongruous movie quotes gave Zuckerberg, who could otherwise lapse into long periods of silence, tremendous pleasure. He also inserted them in the site. Whenever you searched for something in those days there was a little box below the results that had tiny type that said, “I don’t even know what a quail looks like.” It’s a throwaway line from The Wedding Crashers. Another quote that appeared there was a Tom Cruise line from Top Gun: “Too close for missiles. Switching to guns.” The quotes came to encapsulate, in the fashion of schoolboy in-jokes, the spirit of the company — playful, combative, and despite the technical sophistication, a bit juvenile. Students at colleges around the U.S. spent hours arguing about the significance of these inscrutable epigrams.

As the Facebook boys started dealing increasingly with real business professionals, a reputation for rambunctiousness spread throughout the valley. “It’s Lord of the Flies over there,” one executive told an executive recruiter. Zuckerberg had to be careful which business card he handed out at meetings. He had two sets. One simply identified him as “CEO.” The other: “I’m CEO…bitch!””

— Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires.
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