It began with a 2am email. A Harvard undergraduate emailed author Ben Mezrich – who was fresh from the Hollywood success of Bringing Down the House, his book about six MIT students who took Vegas for millions – to tell him about his friend, Eduardo Saverin. A friend, he said, who had helped found Facebook, now a multi-billion pound company, with Mark Zuckerberg. But one that no-one had heard of.
"I was intrigued," says Mezrich, "and so started hanging out with him and his friend, who'd been kicked out of Facebook, essentially. I was blown away by the drama and how fast it happened for these two best friends – and how they were now no longer friends at all."
If the motivation for the email was justice for his friend Saverin – a chance to show the world just how he'd had been disposed of, apparently cheated out of his share of the company by someone he thought a friend – it has surely come much quicker that even he could have imagined.
A movie called The Social Network has just started filming on the campus of Harvard, just months after the publication of Mezrich's non-fiction book, The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook. And this is no straight-to-bargain-bin effort. Earlier this year it was announced Aaron Sorkin – the creator of The West Wing – would be writing the script. Later, in June, that David Fincher – the director of cult classic Fight Club and last year's Oscar-nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – would be directing. And in September, it was confirmed that US actor Jesse Eisenberg – the star of Adventureland and Zombieland – would play Zuckerberg, along with rising UK star Andrew Garfield as Saverin, and Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley bad boy who had created Napster – and who helped to drive a wedge between the two former friends. Oh, and Kevin Spacey is producing.
In order to speed production of the film, the script and book were even written at the same time.
"Aaron Sorkin was actually adapting the book as I was writing it," says Mezrich. "We were in a hotel room in Boston and he was going over my notes and my chapters. I mean, he's a writing god. How amazing is that?"
Log on to Facebook, tap in Aaron Sorkin and you'll get the usual and occasionally disturbing fan groups – take your pick from "Aaron Sorkin Anonymous", "Aaron Sorkin for President", "What if Aaron Sorkin was the Messiah?" and – a group clearly a bit surer than the last ones – "Aaron Sorkin is God". But the top hit, with more than 11,000 members, was made by the man himself, "Aaron Sorkin & The Facebook Movie".
"Welcome, I'm Aaron Sorkin," he says in the opening screen. "I've just agreed to write a movie for Sony about how Facebook was invented. I figured a good first step in my preparation would be finding out what Facebook is, so I've started this page." The creation of the group itself made news – no one knew at the time a Facebook movie was being made, and it took the film's producers to confirm, yes, it was real – and Sorkin had gone meta. To date, more than 150 threads have been created with the public's Facebook stories – though only a handful seem to have found their way into the final script, which is far more focused on the struggle of Facebook's founding rather than Facebook as a site in general use. It's fair to say, however, that the scene – which doesn't appear in the book – where Saverin is chastised by his girlfriend for his Facebook relationship status still saying "single" is probably one of them.
Neither book nor script sees Zuckerberg come off well. In both, he's a socially inept nerd at Harvard who can barely string a sentence together. "Facebook was an extension of the only true love of Mark's world – the computer," as Mezrich puts it in his book. In both, he's seen to accept a programming assignment from two far more popular, and privileged, Harvard students for a project incredibly similar to Facebook – only to lead them on, do no work on it at all, and then create Facebook instead (or theFacebook as it was known then). In both, the key reason behind Facebook's creation was to get girls: a way for Mark to bypass the elite "final clubs" that would traditionally slingshot you from Harvard into the world, and ones that he never get close to. In both, the prototype for Facebook was a website called Facemash – where he invited Harvard's male students to rate the female ones, and which nearly got him kicked out of Harvard. And in both, he does it all with his only true friend Eduardo – before ultimately betraying him.
But Sorkin's script goes further still. In the very first page, his notes describe Zuckerberg as a "sweet-looking 19-year-old whose lack of any physically intimidating attributes masks a very complicated and dangerous anger". It opens with a scene that technically makes Zuckerberg look good – he's talking to a girlfriend just before creating Facemash. (In reality, there was no girlfriend at this point – just a very bad date.) But she soon dumps him, telling him: "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 that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."
How does Sorkin feel about dramatising events that happened so recently, possibly having a genuine impact on the lives of those he portrays? "That's a tough question," says Sorkin. "The Farnsworth Invention [about the invention of television] was my first non-fiction and after that I swore I'd never do it again. And then I wrote Charlie Wilson's War. And then the [as-yet-unmade] Trial of the Chicago 7, then The Social Network. My knee-jerk answer is a high-minded one – I'm not a journalist, my responsibility isn't to the truth. Art isn't about what happened. On the other hand, I do have a responsibility as a decent person not to screw with people's lives for the sake of having a hit. I don't know – it's a judgement call."
The social network: Who's who?
*Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg
With his mop of unruly hair, pale skin and intense gaze, rising star Eisenberg was always the favourite to play Zuckerberg – the intensely shy and somewhat unknowable founder of Facebook, who has found himself as the unlikely twentysomething CEO of a multibillion-pound company – but only by discarding his best friend along the way.
"Jesse Eisenberg is a fantastic talent," says Ben Mezrich. "I loved Adventureland, and he's really the spitting image of Mark."
*Andrew Garfield – Eduardo Saverin
The British star of Boy A and Red Riding will have to master his accent to play Saverin – Facebook's ousted co-founder, business manager and formerly the best friend of Zuckerberg. The economics student was born in Brazil, but moved to Miami in the mid-1990s. Unlike Zuckerberg, the slightly less shy Saverin had begun to find acceptance in one of Harvard's "final" clubs, due partly to his reputation as the kid who had created a formula to outguess the oil market, making more than $300,000 while still a student.
*Justin Timberlake – Sean Parker
Timberlake will get to eat up the screen as Parker – the live-wire Silicon Valley bad boy with all the best lines. Described in the book as a "whirling dervish" and in the script as "working a room like Sinatra", we first meet after he's bedded a college student. When he met Zuckerberg, Parker was already an internet legend, having creating music-sharing site Napster and business social networking service Plaxo. He was idolised by Zuckerberg, causing the rift between Zuckerberg and Saverin.