Imitation Biopic

By Velvet Belle Tree


The Imitation Game purports to be a biopic about Alan Turing.  It has received rave reviews and nominations for many awards.  When I saw it, I really enjoyed it.  However, after reading a not-so-favorable review by Christian Caryl at the New York Review of Books, which cited many inaccuracies, and referenced Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, I decided to read the biography myself.  My conclusion is that if the movie was the great biopic some have said it is, it was not the biopic of Alan Turing.

Let me say that one problem with making the movie is that there is little or no drama in Turing’s biography, so that dramatic incidents have to be devised.  So I will confine my comments to incidents in the movie that are either grossly untrue and/or went against the true nature of his life.

First, there’s the depiction of his personality.  In the movie there are scenes which imply that he had Asperger’s Syndrome.  In one scene, he can’t figure out when his co-workers are indirectly asking him to lunch.  He doesn’t get along with his co-workers and doesn’t know how to act.  (This, by the way, seems more like P.A.M. Dirac, whose biography was titled The Strangest Man.)  In the biography, he’s depicted as shy and somewhat awkward but gets along well with others and is liked and respected by his co-workers.

In the movie, there are flashbacks to his friendship with Christopher Morcom when he’s in public school*.  Chris is depicted as his “first love” who introduces him to cryptanalysis.  Alan seems to be about 15 when Chris dies while on school holiday. When the headmaster tells Alan about Chris’ death, Alan hides his feelings and says that he wasn’t really a close friend. In the biography, there is a close friendship but although Alan may love Chris, there is no outward sign of it.  Chris dies, at school, when Alan is 17 and Chris 18.  Instead of hiding his feelings, Alan asks his mother to send flowers and he writes to Chris’ mother.  He then begins a relationship with Chris’ family, even going on holiday with his parents and brother and visiting his family’s home. 

In the movie, Alan starts his career at Bletchley Park by going to an interview where he acts very obnoxiously.  He claims to be Britain’s top mathematician (whereas in the biography he’s rather modest), says he doesn’t know German but that’s irrelevant because he’s good at puzzle solving.  In the biography, he takes some courses in cryptography at Bletchley Park and is then recruited from Cambridge as are other academics.  And although he may not be fluent in German, he was able to read German, having learned mainly from German mathematics books. 

The recruitment of Joan Clarke in the movie was complete fiction.  There was no puzzle contest to recruit people (though while watching the movie I thought this was a very clever idea).  Joan was recruited from Cambridge, where she was still an undergraduate, in the same way that other academics were recruited.  In the movie, she kept talking about her parents wanting her to get married because when was 25, but if she was recruited while still an undergrad, she couldn’t have been that old.

Alan’s relationship with Joan is covered briefly in the biography.  First she’s a friend and then he thinks they might marry, perhaps his attempt to have a “normal” family life.  Before becoming engaged, he tells her that he has “homosexual tendencies,” which is rather an understatement.  But she accepts that.  When he decides that it won’t work and breaks the engagement, he does it quietly and quotes the ending of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” (Yet each man kills the thing he loves ….).  In the movie, he doesn’t tell her about his homosexuality until he breaks the engagement and then when that doesn’t faze her, he very emotionally tells her that he never cared for her but just wanted to keep her on the project.

A good portion of the movie depicts his fight to build a machine to decipher Enigma.  He has to fight the authorities and his co-workers.  When he gets it built, raving and ranting against everyone, he names it Christopher.  None of this is anywhere near the truth.

There was already a machine to do part of the Enigma decryption, but Enigma kept getting more complicated.  What Alan contributed was his mathematical knowledge and creativity and the ability to apply it.  He had already written his seminal paper “Computable Numbers” which introduced what came to be known as a “Turing Machine.”  The incident in the movie about him writing to Churchill is almost true.  He and a few of his co-workers wrote a letter to Churchill outlining the need for more personnel.  And he never gave the machine any name. 

The parts of the movie in which he has contact with Soviet spies are completely bogus.  When he finds incriminating evidence, the spy tells Alan he can’t turn him in because he’s a homosexual.  This is an insult to Turing, implying that he would put his personal safety above that of his country.  Actually, the only reason that people know that Alan was a homosexual is because he had told them and the crime was not being a homosexual but the commission of specific acts between two men.

 In contrast to not being trusted, Turing was sent to America during the war as an official liaison.  He spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at Bell Labs (which at that time was located in Manhattan).  Here was a chance for the movie to contain some interesting scenes: ocean crossing under war time conditions, visits to Greenwich village (which may or may not have actually happened) etc.

Now let’s look at the portrayal of his trial and the end of his life.  In the movie, it appears that, even though he opened the door by reporting the theft, the police hounded him and forced chemical castration on him which affected him so badly that he committed suicide. He did indeed report a theft.  The thief was a friend of his boyfriend, Arnold.  And when Alan could give no acceptable reason for Arnold knowing his house, he freely admitted to a homosexual relationship and gave details to the cops.  Interestingly, the reason that he couldn’t explain Arnold’s being in his house, was because of their class difference – he was working class. 

Alan pleaded guilty to the charges and the trial was kept quiet.  At this point Alan had to tell his brother and his mother that he was gay.  He also wrote to friends (including Joan Clarke) so they wouldn’t read it in the papers.  He had one of his friends and co-worker from Bletchley Park as a character witness.  He accepted the hormone treatment in lieu of one year of jail so that he could continue his work.  The treatment was only for one year.  And, although they could, the government did not take back the OBE (Order of the British Empire) that he received for his war time work.

The visit from Joan Clarke while he was taking the treatment is pure fiction.  And so was his attitude.  In the movie, he was practically a basket case, going into hysterics about not wanting to be alone, acting as if the machine he was working on at home was a “friend.”  He did work at home, but there was no machine – he was past the stage of actual work on computer development.  He did not moan and groan about his condition, but took in in stride, including the fact that he was growing breasts.

He died in 1954, two years after the trial and one year after he had stopped the hormone treatment.  It seemed like an obvious suicide to the authorities so they never tested the supposedly poisoned apple.  His mother insisted that it was an accident.  He was doing various experiments at home which used cyanide and was very careless.

We’ll never know the truth of his death.  But one thing we do know, his life was not as portrayed in The Imitation Game.


*For those not familiar with British usage, public schools are what Americans call private (boarding) schools in approximately the middle and high school grades.