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Analysing a Scene: The subtle genius of The Social Network

Since its release in 2010, The Social Network has become a modern classic. Directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, the film was destined to be great. However, we all know we love it, but only a few can really understand why. As the true cinephiles that we are, we went on a quest to find out. We worked very hard, watched the film for the hundredth time, and decided to take a closer look at the script of The Social Network. We focussed on one sequence in particular: the absolutely brilliant opening scene.

In his book, Analysing the Screenplay, Jill Nelmes wrote: “Dialogue has two primary functions in the screenplay; first, to make the story world more believable, to create a world in which characters talk, have voices, […]; and second, to provide narrative information as the film characters express themselves in their fictional world.” This is a very simple and straightforward explanation of dialogue: It is there to help further the story and develop the characters, and to create a certain realism. Some filmmakers prefer to leave as much dialogue out as possible, believing that the visuals should speak for themselves, as film is, in the end, a visual medium. Aaron Sorkin however, does not. He has been quoted saying “dialogue is like music” and that he “loves the sound of it”. This could be the reason he likes playing around with dialogue so much. Instead of letting the characters just talk and express their desires and through this introducing them to the audience, he turns it around. He shows us the desires and character’s personalities by what they are not saying.

The-Social-Network (1)

Jill Nelmes also wrote that “layering dialogue is often used to mask the real theme or meaning in a scene.” In short, this is called ‘subtext’. It is what happens when the characters are saying something different than what they mean. This is clearly visible in the now iconic opening scene of The Social Network as the film starts with the following lines:

MARK (V.O.)

Did you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?

ERICA (V.O.)

That can’t possibly be true.

MARK (V.O.)

It is.

ERICA (V.O.)

What would account for that?

MARK (V.O.)

Well, first, an awful lot of people live in China. But here’s my question: How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?

ERICA

I didn’t know they take SAT’s in China.

MARK

They don’t. I wasn’t talking about China anymore, I was talking about me.

On the surface, this would seem like a regular conversation, but it already tells us a lot about these two characters. Although Mark is talking about China, he is actually concerned about distinguishing himself in a group of extremely intelligent people (in his case this is Harvard). Erica, however, is taking it literally and is genuinely curious about these statistics, so she focusses on China and the SAT’s.  She continues asking about Marc’s SAT score, while in the meantime, he is talking about himself and the things he can do to stand out (Lessons from the Screenplay, 2017). They aren’t talking to but alongside each other.

ERICA

You got 1600?

MARK

Yes. I could sing in an A Capella group, but I can’t sing.

ERICA

Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?

MARK

I can row crew or invent a 25 dollar PC.

Erica now steers the conversation in the direction she knows Marc wants it to go:

ERICA

Or you can get into a final club.

MARK

Or I can get into a final club.

This first page into the script tells us almost all we need to know about our two characters. Mark is highly intelligent and he wants to distinguish himself; his desire is to get into a final club. Erica is shown to be polite, patient and impressed by high SAT scores, signifying that she doesn’t have the same education and level of intelligence as Mark (Lessons from the Screenplay, 2017). With one page of dialogue, Sorkin has shown us the true essence of his characters without actually writing it down.  As the scene continues, he uses misunderstanding to guide the audience towards the inciting incident: the moment that sets the whole story in motion.

ERICA

You know, from a woman’s perspective, sometimes not singing in an a Capella group is a good thing?

MARK

This is serious.

ERICA

On the other hand I do like guys who row crew.

MARK

(beat)

Well I can’t do that.

ERICA

I was kid—

MARK

Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.

Erica is referencing Mark’s previous lines about how to distinguish himself. In doing so, however, she hurts Mark’s ego. So, in return, Mark finally answers her question about his perfect SAT-score to make himself feel better. These lines indicate that Mark is a person who has trouble communicating with other people. Something that Aaron Sorkin himself also said in an interview with DP/30. He said that it was “his first time dealing with a character who is, ironically, not good at communication”. Mark’s lack of communication skills is further established in the rest of the scene. Mark is explaining the final clubs to Erica to make her realise the importance of getting into one when she says:

ERICA

Okay, well, which is the easiest to get into?

This is where the scene takes a turn. Unknowingly, Erica just insulted Mark in the worst way possible. She is, in her eyes, engaging in small talk, but to Mark, final clubs are of great importance. While she continues the conversation, he is still offended. When he goes on about her previous statement, she becomes irritated and says that he is ‘obsessed with finals clubs’.  After this, not only does he correct her (“Final clubs. Not finals clubs.”) thus undermining her intelligence, he goes on to insult her even further without noticing.

MARK

I want to try to be straightforward with you and tell you that I think you might want to be a little more supportive. If I get in I’ll be taking you…to the events, and the gatherings…and you’ll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn’t normally get to meet.

Because Mark is so bad at communicating with others, he doesn’t understand that what he said is extremely offensive. He tries to apologise but by this point, Erica is already done with him. The situation escalates and Mark insults her again by pointing out she goes to B.U. and thus, doesn’t need to study. This leads to, a now furious, Erica breaking up with him and calling him an asshole. This is our inciting incident.

In a little over 8 pages, Sorkin has not only introduced us to the characters but through his dialogue, he showed the audience their desires, personalities and the main cause for all the other events in the film. In his interview with DP/30 Sorkin explained that he started writing the script with the words Mark wrote years earlier on his blog: Erica Albright is a bitch. He knew what happened after that (the invention of Facebook) but he was curious to discover what led Mark to be so angry at this particular girl. He manages to establish their entire relationship in a short conversation, something that can be seen throughout the film with other characters as well. For us, this is one of the reasons the film works so well: we know exactly what they are saying, by everything they are not.

Source photo: theplaylist.net and EW.com

 

As you may have noticed, we referenced a video by Lessons from the Screenplay. We highly recommend you watch it, and subscribe to the channel if you are interested in learning more about what makes film so great.

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