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.