Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network” won him an Oscar, but it drew the ire of at least a few tech pundits who felt that it took too many liberties for dramatic effect. Now Sorkin is writing a screenplay about Steve Jobs. In an interview with The New York Times last week, here’s what he had to say about his thinking on the project.
“At the moment I’m at roughly the same place I was when I decided to write “The Social Network” — which is to say I don’t know what the movie’s about yet. I know it won’t be a biography as it’s very hard to shake the cradle-to-grave structure of a biopic. I know that Jobs was a very complicated and dynamic genius who fought a number of dramatic battles. I know that like Edison, Marconi (and Philo Farnsworth), he invented something we love. I think that has a lot to do with our love affair with him. We’re told every day that America’s future is basically in service but our history is in building things — railroads and cars and cities — but Steve Jobs, in building something that’s taking us to our future, has also taken us to one of the best parts of our past. Now all I have to do is turn that into three acts with an intention, obstacle, exposition, inciting action, reversal, climax and denouement and make it funny and emotional and I’ll be in business.”
What’s interesting to me about these early thoughts is that they make no mention of historical accuracy. Instead, they’re focused on teasing out the dramatic core of Jobs’ story. Sorkin is looking to understand the idea of Steve Jobs, rather than the person himself.
Movies v. History
I’m pretty sure Sorkin took a similar approach to “The Social Network,” too. That script tried to get at the heart of the idea of Facebook — essentially the notion of a huge digital high school, even though it largely takes place on the grounds of Harvard University. That idea of all the trials and tribulations of high school-like life was an emotional concept that helped people understand the Facebook phenomenon on a dramatic level, even if it wasn’t historically accurate.
Zuckerberg himself complained that “The Social Network” fundamentally misread (or misrepresented) his motivations. He said somewhat famously: “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
That might be true, but the idea of building something for the sake of building is not inherently dramatic. Sorkin’s first duty was to construct an engrossing screenplay, and he did that very well, if you ask me. At the same time, he also managed to capture much of the romanticism and exhiliration of building the largest digital social network the world has ever seen. As far as cinematic interpretations of technology stories go — and remember, previous entries in this genre include embarrassments like “Pirates of Silicon Valley” and “The Net,” — he far exceeded expectations.
Still, if a movie about Mark Zuckerberg was contentious, I expect a small war to be waged over any movie about Steve Jobs. As a public, we’re far more wrapped up in the story of Jobs’ products, company, career and life than we are with those of Mark Zuckerberg. There’s almost literally no screenplay that Sorkin can write that won’t offend somebody, especially those of us in technology who think we know him best.
So whenever the movie is finally released (if it’s ever released!) it will almost certainly contain some distortions of the truth. But hopefully it will also remain emotionally accurate enough to serve as a useful complement to our understanding who Steve Jobs was. If it proves to be wildly inaccurate, well, we can rest easy in the knowledge that Jobs’ legacy is already tremendous, and will likely suffer little at the hands of a movie. Whatever shape the Sorkin’s screenplay takes, its first duty will always be to itself — that is to say, it must function as entertainment first, and history second. That’s what movies do, and it’s exactly why we enjoy them. Plus, it’ll be just a movie, after all.