[Note: This was originally posted February 14, 2011.]
As I watched The King’s Speech recently, I was struck by how many screenwriting lessons could be gleaned from the movie. So I decided this week and next to analyze The King’s Speech and The Social Network, the most likely winners of this year’s Academy Awards for Best Screenplay (Speech for original, Network for adapted) to see what takeaway we could derive from both movies and their excellent screenplays.
Today: The Social Network — Compelling Protagonist.
Last week in the very first post in this Screenwriting Lessons series, I focused on the importance of a sympathetic Protagonist:
Hollywood is not stupid. They know the simplest, easiest way to accomplish audience identification is by telling stories with sympathetic Protagonists. The fact is we are much more likely to identify with a Protagonist if we sympathize with them. So as far as the studios are concerned, screenwriters should accept that as a given and go write them a hit script.
Except when your name is Aaron Sorkin and you write the hell out of a Protagonist (Mark Zuckerberg) who is not a terribly sympathetic character at all in The Social Network. Indeed if you believe Zuckerberg’s fictional soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica, he is… well, here’s what she has to say:
ERICA (close) Listen. You're going to be successful and rich. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.
Let us count the ways we can consider this Protagonist to be an asshole:
* He’s demeaning to Erica when he talks to her in the opening scene.
* After their break-up, he immediately creates a website and blogs to the world, “Erica Albright’s a bitch… do you think all B.U. girls are bitches,” then provides dirt on the minimal size of her breasts.
* He listens to the Winklevoss twins pitch their idea for Harvard Connection, then turns right around and pitches something strikingly similar — as if it’s his own idea– to his best friend Eduardo.
* He takes start-up money from Eduardo without telling him about the project’s roots, thereby ensnaring Eduardo in future business hassles.
* He strings along the Winklevoss brothers, supposedly working on their project when he actually works on his.
* In legal depositions, which comprise a considerable part of the movie, he is pompous and acerbic to the point of narcissism saying things like this:
MARK Ma'am, I know you've done your homework and so you know money isn't a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Harvard University, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room.
MARK I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?
* But most egregious of all, he screws his best friend Eduardo, albeit under the influence of Sean Parker, but that does not make Zuckerberg any less culpable.
So why in the world does The Social Network work if it flies directly in the face of one of the most widely held beliefs in Hollywood — that in order for a movie to succeed, it needs to have a sympathetic Protagonist?
Because in Zuckerberg, Sorkin created a compelling character. He may not be likable. Or sympathetic. But he’s damn interesting:
* Youngest billionaire in the world.
* Created a social network that has transformed hundreds of millions of lives, even world politics.
* Caught up in not one, but two massive lawsuits.
* He has a brilliant mind.
Per this last point, frankly if you go through all his dialogue where his egocentricity is in full bloom and he is being an asshole, we can’t help but be fascinated to hear what will come out of this guy’s mouth next.
Given Hollywood’s fixation in this area, I would advise you to think twice about working on a story where the Protagonist isn’t sympathetic, let alone an asshole. But if you do write one, make sure you do this: Create a Protagonist who is compelling.
How about your current script? Is your Protagonist compelling? Consider this: If you create a sympathetic and compelling Protagonist, how much more likely you’ll be at crafting a story with which a reader will be engaged.
Now it just so happens later today I’ll be featuring an interview with the head of a Hollywood movie studio who has some interesting things to say about The Social Network and the concept of sympathetic Protagonists. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow: Narrative Structure.
UPDATE: Found this interesting quote in THR from Robert McKee:
But his highest marks go to Aaron Sorkin‘s Social Network because the life in question, that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “doesn’t give you a great ending the way The Fighter did, so you have to make some ending about some other thing that changed and make audiences care about it. Sorkin had a great challenge because he had a protagonist who is not particularly empathetic because he’s awkward and closed-off socially. But he did a brilliant job of making the hows and whys of what he did quirky enough so that the process really intrigues us. He knew exactly where to create tension in the audience’s mind. You don’t have a big climax, but you have a big resolution.”
Intrigue = Compelling, right?