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The Social Kane

Ever since it’s release, 2010’s The Social Network has been drawing comparisons to 1941’s Citizen Kane. Fairly high praise considering the latter is generally regarded as one of the finest films ever made. But are the comparisons justified? While many may differ on the quality of the film itself, structurally they bear a striking resemblance.

Both films use the same narrative structure. Instead of a chronological telling of the story, both stories jump in their respective timeframes. Citizen Kane begins at the end, a revolutionary concept for it’s time, and then makes heavy use if flashbacks as a reporter interviews Kane’s acquaintances after his death. The Social Network works in much the same way, using lawyers meetings instead of interviews to carry the narrative. Through these meetings we learn who the major players are and what Mark Zuckerberg did to them for Facebook to succeed.

In fact, the characters of Charles Foster Kane and Mark Zuckerberg are quite similar. Both were completely willing to do whatever they had to in order to succeed. They trampled their friends and enemies, and created an empire because of that.

But why, then, do these two films leave such distinctly different emotional impacts? With so many factors in common, why do we still look at Kane and Zuckerberg as different entities, instead of one as a modernization of the other? This comes from a very important decision made at the scripting level.

Early on in the pre-production process, somebody made the decision that Citizen Kane would be presented as fiction and The Social Network would be viewed biographically. Such a small, simple decision had a profound impact on the style of these films. Citizen Kane is based on the life and times of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, yet they decided to go with a fictional character instead of Hearst himself. While many factors influenced this, it allowed Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles the freedom to take the character where they felt he needed to go. In the end, Citizen Kane is a story of a man seeking redemption and bring unable to find it. By using a fictional character, Citizen Kane is able to wrap up it’s storyline and provide the audience a satisfying conclusion.

The Social Network, on the other hand, uses the actual inventor of Facebook and is thusly more grounded in reality. Aaron Sorkin, no matter what he tried to do was always stuck only being able to write what actually has happened. Feature films allow some leeway for exaggeration, but not out and out speculation. This provides a fascinating look into the life of a real person, but also means the end has yet to be written. When The Social Network closes, we are left wondering if Mark will find redemption. Or if he even wants to seek redemption. The real life saga of Mark Zuckerberg continues, and so The Social Network ends openly with no real conclusion.

Two vastly different styles on the same subject.

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