Why The Imitation Game is a disaster for historians.

I made the mistake, as a former professional historian of logic and meta-mathematics and, as a consequence, an amateur historian of the computer, of going to the cinema to watch the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. I knew that it wouldn’t be historically accurate but that it would be a total historical disaster and, as I said on leaving the cinema, an insult to the memory of both Alan Turing and the others who worked in Bletchley Park surprised even me, a dyed in the wool, life-long cynic.

As I ventilated my disgust over the next few days on Twitter some, quite correctly, took me to task, informing me that it is a film and not a history book and therefore one shouldn’t criticise it for any inaccuracies that it contains. This attitude is of course perfectly correct and I would accept it, if only the people who watch the film, who unlike myself are not knowledgeable historians, would view the film in this way; unfortunately they don’t.

The pre-release publicity for the film emphasised very intensely that the film tells a “true” story. This is screwed back somewhat in the film itself which opens with the claim that it is “based on a true story”. Unfortunately people simply ignore the “based on” and as I left a full cinema, at the end of the film, people all around me were saying to each other, “Wow, I didn’t know that. It’s a true story, you know?” and other similar expressions. This was compounded by both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, as the film won the awards of the respective organisations for best-adapted script! The film is supposedly based on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing biography, The Enigma. This book, which I read when it was first published, is one of the best biographies of a scientist that I’ve ever read, superbly researched, meticulously detailed and a real pleasure to read. Hodges is apparently prohibited by a gag clause in his contract for the film rights to his book from commenting on the film. “Take this large sum of money son and shut your mouth whilst we destroy your book!” It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the adaption consists of dumping the factual content of the book, plus several of the central characters, and writing a piece of third rate fiction using the names of some of the figures in Hodges’ biography. If that’s the film industries definition of ‘best adapted’ I don’t won’t to know what they consider to be the ‘worst adapted’.

I’m not going to go into great detail about everything that is wrong with the film because to a certain extent others have already done the work for me. The film almost completely ignores the contributions of the Poles in breaking the Enigma Codes (note the plural, there was more than one, another thing that doesn’t get mentioned in the film). They only get mentioned in a passing half sentence, which I strongly suspect almost all viewers failed to notice. You can read about the Polish contribution here, here and here. A short, general but largely accurate account of Turing’s involvement can be read here. There is a biting general criticism of the film on Ursula Writes, and another slightly less acerbic by L. V. Anderson on the Slate website. Another demolition job both of the Imitation Game and the Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is on the Nature website by Colin Macilwain.

In case anybody doubts that the lay public think that the film is a ‘true’ story I have extracted part of a fairly typical critique of the film from the website of G. B. Hatch

I wanted to see this film the minute I heard about it. The plot sounded very intriguing. I had never learned about Alan Turing, and I now believe every History teacher should be showing this film while teaching WWII. Alan Turing and his team are some of the heroes of WWII that didn’t need to fire a single shot. This film, like “Argo”, is a great historical thriller based on a story that had remained confidential for several decades. This film is “The Imitation Game”.

“The Imitation Game” tells the true story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant yet socially awkward British mathematician who is hired as a German code-breaker during WWII. He sets out to create a machine that will crack the Enigma Code, a German code that many claim as unbreakable. With the help of fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley), Turing invents this machine, which he calls ‘Christopher’, while also trying to hide his homosexuality which was illegal at the time. The film perfectly blends intensity and humor, while also transitioning between the past, present, and future.

As can be clearly seen Mr (or is that Ms?) Hatch is convinced that the film tells a true story and even goes so far as to suggest that the film should be used in school history lessons!

The historian is clearly presented by a dilemma when the film industry decides to make a film about a well-researched and well-documented historical episode. Almost without exception the scriptwriters decide that history is too complex, too boring, not sexy enough or whatever. They throw out ninety per cent of the historical facts and write there own ‘better than reality’ version usually retaining not much more that the names of the historical characters. They then add a bucket full of false historical touches, such as horns on Viking helmets, that everybody knows are “true”. The whole thing is then packaged up by the advertising department as the “amazing unknown true story of”! If the historian complains he gets firmly put in his place by people telling him “it’s only a film”. If he doesn’t complain he can listen to all those film goers sitting around in bars and cafés saying, “Did you know Alan Turing won the Second World War almost single handed!”

What ever else you have no hope of winning if you are a historian.

22 Comments

Filed under Myths of Science, Uncategorized

22 responses to “Why The Imitation Game is a disaster for historians.

  1. I rather enjoyed the curate’s egg of a Darwin biopic, Creation, despite some extremely dodgy scenes depicting Darwin chasing his daughter’s ghost (review at: http://friendsofdarwin.com/videos/creation-film/). It’s just occurred to me that Benevolent Thundercrack appeared in that film too. If he doesn’t watch out, he’s going to earn himself a reputation.

  2. jimhexis

    Based on a true story is the modern equivalent of once upon a time.

  3. Joanna McInnes

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of this article. Most people seem to leave school with only confused and vague memories of the history they were taught at school. These days history is taught not chronologically but as random topics, say, the 2nd World War, the Tudors, the Vikings or whatever and when schools use films as part of the course, it is vital that they are historically accurate. I have come across school pupils mentioning ‘the scene at the petrol station’ when writing an essay on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for English Language, because they have been shown the film version set in the modern day, so it seems likely that a film version of Henry VIII’s life will spring to mind when that topic comes up in History – with all the artistic license that ‘based on’ implies.

    A historical film is a chance to educate both the young and their parents, to reach those who do not read history books or even to set the record straight when hitherto accepted versions of historical events may have been inaccurate. One reason I prefer a documentary is that historical novels and films put words into the mouths of historical characters (usually in gratingly anachronistic modern English) and cannot seem to resist embellishment, putting 2 people in a scene together who never actually met and other inaccuracies for the sake of increased drama or plot resolution. The disclaimer ‘loosely based on a story from history’ would be less confusing and misleading than ‘based on…’

  4. On the positive side, some will leave the theater determined to learn more, and with a modicum of brain-engagement will eventually learn the “truth” or as close to the truth as historians have been able to come.

  5. M Tucker

    Thony,

    I think you should keep right on tweeting about the historical fiction that passes as a “true story” on screen. It encourages me that at least some of those complaining know the film is “not a history.” Presumably they can correct their friends who might say “Wow, I didn’t know that. It’s a true story, you know?”

    They can stop Hodges from commenting about the screen play but they can’t stop him from talking about his wonderful book that has been around since 1983. Is that right? Well Hodges just gave a talk at the Princeton Public Library on Dec 4 of last year.

    According to the New York Times bestsellers list for March it is number 2 in the science category and number 14 in the larger and more inclusive non-fiction category. So someone is reading it still.

    I understand that over the years the book has spawned several screen plays and that some are pretty good but you knew that you were headed into with this one when you purchased your ticket. You had to see for yourself as an “amateur historian of the computer” and as someone well versed in the life of Alan Turning, I have read your other posts. You had to have firsthand knowledge so you could accurately address this “insult to the memory of both Alan Turing and the others who worked in Bletchley Park.” So I say carry on! As I read in a post from November of last year on “Not Even Wrong”

    “go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.”

    Please continue to be the history of science Hulk and you will always be a winner!

  6. All films “based on a true story” should instead use the title card from American Hustle: “Some of this actually happened.”

  7. Baerista

    One of your best rants so far, Thony. I agree wholeheartedly.

  8. It’s just a story–of a true film!-)

  9. Walter Hehl

    Dear historians:

    If you like to read a really important text by Alan Turing about the imitation game, read this easy-to-read paper:

    A. M. Turing (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind 49: 433-460. COMPUTING MACHINERY AND INTELLIGENCE By A. M. Turing
    e.g. here: http://www.csee.umbc.edu/courses/471/papers/turing.pdf

    Here I see the genius – his discussion about what people think about computers and his predictions are still valid and modern 65 years later.

  10. “As I ventilated my disgust over the next few days on Twitter some, quite correctly, took me to task, informing me that it is a film and not a history book and therefore one shouldn’t criticise it for any inaccuracies that it contains.”

    OK, so why pretend that it is “about” an historical figure named “Alan Turing”? Just put in the credits “Some parts of this film were drawn from the life of Alan Turing.”

  11. I quite agree, as soon as the film people mention true story and based on a true story, it is open season on them regarding accuracy. If they want to do a film that won’t be criticised, then they need to say something else, like “based on some events in history” or suchlike.

    There are of course always people who will draw the wrong conclusion no matter what, often based on their visceral and emotional responses to a film. The classic example is Braveheart, which single handedly set back the cause of Scottish history by decades, and convinced lots of people that great kilts were around at that time. People wearing great kilts were still making it onto the field at the Bannockburn re-enactment in 2005 or so, although the more recent ones have finally got the balls to say no you can’t wear them.

    • I once read a review of Braveheart that said something along the lines of, “it was a thousand years too late for woad and four hundred years too early for kilts”. I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the remembered time gaps.

      • On the woad, the evidence is slim that they were using it as body paint, last I knew, so it might be more of 1200 years. On the great kilt, they are an invention of the 15th or early 16th century, during the social and economic upheavals associated with the disintegration of Highland power structures.
        So more like 200 years.
        It is a nice comment though.

  12. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #39 | Whewell's Ghost

  13. Kyle Penderman

    A reporter once pestered Mel Gibson about the inaccuracies in the film Braveheart. The actor finally got fed up and said about the historical characters that they were all (naughty word) dead so shut up!

  14. read a review of To Explain the World: a history of modern scienceby John Leslie in the TLS (TLS may 6 no.5849). Your views would be most welcomed.

  15. Reblogged this on johngribbinscience and commented:
    This saves me the bother. A superb summary.

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