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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.