It was my sister, my working-on-her-masters-in-professional-writing sister, who brought home a copy of the screenplay for “The Social Network” for me to read. “This is really well written,” she told me by way of recommendation. I was excited to read it; I hadn’t seen the film yet but the consensus I heard from people who had seen it was that it was very good, and of course there was that whole business with the Academy Awards that seemed to lend credit to the idea that this was a superlative film. In spite of the good reviews I’d found myself merely lukewarm on the film; there wasn’t anything about the subject or the promotional materials that made me want to move it to the top of my Netflix queue, but I’d had that response to films before only to discover that they really were as good as everyone said.
Having said all that, I should preface what I am going to say next by pointing out that even though I’ve read the screenplay I still haven’t seen the finished film, so there is still room for me to have my opinion changed. Right now though, my opinion is rather cool on the subject. As a matter of fact, I need to run my opinions under lukewarm tap water for about six hours before I’ll be ready to see the finished film. There are screenplays that change peoples’ lives and for me this is one of them. Reading “The Social Network” takes all the fun out of Facebook the way reading “The Jungle” takes all the fun out of a barbecue. It’s all fun and games and a convenient way to socialize with friends until something like this comes along and points out to you that You Are Part Of The Problem. It turns out I’m making misogynist super-geniuses, narcissists, and megalomaniacs rich at the expense of my own credibility and self worth.
Harsh, you say? Perhaps. After all, this is an opinion that I formed off a screenplay which is arguably a work of fiction even if it is based on real people and events. And I *might* be taking things a little more to heart than the average audience member because I want to believe that even someone like me has the potential for the kind of greatness that the characters in this film achieve- except that I am not a misogynist, a super-genius, a narcissist, or a megalomaniac, I didn’t go to Harvard, I didn’t make billions of dollars at age 20 in a dot com, and I prefer to not screw over my friends. Because the message that I got from this screenplay is that those are beneficial qualities that will cause you to become an overnight success.
In reality-land I know that the phenomenon of Facebook becoming as huge as it has in such a short time is an exception, not the rule of how success happens, but after a few hours alone with that screenplay even I was pretty sure that the only way to achieve any kind of success was Ruthlessly and Overnight. This has brought a new question to my mind as a filmmaker: Is it more important to tell a story well or to tell a story responsibly? If you have an excellently crafted story that promotes a negative message is it still a good story? On the one hand we have a well written, critically acclaimed screenplay that has garnered nominations for the highest filmmaking awards in the country. On the other hand we have a message that sows the seeds for the proliferation of the worst qualities we can culturally tolerate in the pursuit of fabled rewards. My sister contends that the message may be odious but the story itself is well crafted and that can’t be dismissed out of hand- that still makes it a “good” story, if not a moral one. Another friend contends that the whole point of any “good” story is to be entertaining: as long as one is entertained by a story then both the craft and the message are irrelevant (or at least, less-relevant).
So where do I stand? Do I believe that the merit of a story lies in it’s message? I do, actually.
I realize that this falls painfully close to a lot of arguments about free speech and censorship and artistic license, but when a well-crafted, entertaining work of fiction promotes a message that is going to have an effect on me in real life I don’t want that message to suck. I believe that story-makers hold a lot of power over the people who make up an audience and, as Spiderman tells us, with great power comes great responsibility. I believe that story-makers should ultimately be held accountable for the work they create (I’m looking at you, Ayn Rand). I realize I’m in the minority on this: what with craft and entertainment value and free speech and ruthless industrial competition and dazzling rewards all demanding a little piece of every story-makers attention, but this is the first time that I realized how important this was to me.