I got into an online chat recently, about whether the new film about Steve Jobs accurately represents the Apple innovator. Some of those involved were concerned about the faithfulness of the way Jobs is depicted, and I realise that coming from a screenwriting perspective the question is pretty unhelpful.
Now, I haven't seen the film yet, but that doesn't matter with what I'm about to say in mind. When people say the film is about Steve Jobs, it's understandable. He is the guy on the poster, after all. What the film is likely to be about you can't put on a poster so simply. That's because films are less 'about' their protagonists than their themes.
I'll use The Social Network, the film about the origins of Facebook, to unpack that. Sure enough, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on screen a lot of the time, in the form of actor Jess Eisenberg. But the film itself is more about the conflict between old and new ways of making money, and the ripples that creates.
Remember the Vinklevoss Twins? They're the athletic students who come from old money, whose ConnectU concept Zuckerberg allegedly stole. And they're the core of what the film is about. Zuckerberg took their idea that was about connecting an existing social elite, and made it available to the world at large. In the process, he becomes wealthier than even the twins could conceive. And in doing so, he gets to be able to do whatever he wants...or at least believes that he can.
So, Zuckerberg becomes Midas in the film - but the other key to the story, which viewers will be expecting since the idea that someone can have whatever they want just because they want it, is he can't just snap his fingers and get the women he'd like to impress. That's communicated in the film with his crass interaction with an invented character, Erica Albright.
Now, if you're going to be super-faithful to Zuckerberg's story, the fact that Albright didn't exist is ammo. If you accept that stories are about exploring a theme, what you'll note instead is how Erica is all about the unattainable, which Zuckerberg will never come to own however much money he has. And that maybe if he had some of the personal qualities represented by the Vinklevoss boys he'd have stood a chance. Truth is, that feels right even if it isn't factually true, because we don't want the grasping geek to have everything simply because he has immense wealth. That's a fantasy, but it's not a story, since stories are concerned with consequences.
So, why not make someone up, instead of doing films about people like Zuckerberg and Jobs? Well, they already play a role in our way of understanding the world that has little to do with their actual histories. They're in the media already, and because they are known to us we have feelings about them. Odds are those feelings have very little basis in fact, and a lot to do with the part that people like the Apple developer and the Facebook creator play in popular culture.
Anyway, it's not like any of us is innocent on this front. The stories friends share about how a particular person is getting on often relate to themes as well. I talked this morning with a friend, and one subject that came up was a mutual acquaintance who it turns out is a conman of sorts. That aspect of his character is all that comes up in recent conversations, my friend and I sharing an interest in a narrative that will see his antics exposed. In the instance of Jobs and Zuckerberg, the issue is whether a story fits those real people. With the guy my friend and I discuss, we're interested in a particular narrative occurring.
Fiction and reality operate in a dance, and separating them is not straightforward. You can only do so much with facts. Introduce perspective and theme into the equation, and things get a lot more interesting...