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When is “based on a true story” a lie? (Spoiler Alert)

Recently my husband and I viewed The Imitation Game, a film directed by Morten Tyldum.

** Stop here and move on if you haven’t seen the film and you don’t like spoilers.**

We were quite moved by this rendition of Alan Turing’s life.  We knew little about the man before the movie:

  • he was a brilliant British mathematician;
  • he had “solved” the Enigma (the German cipher machine that wreak hell and havoc during WWII);
  • he was gay; and
  • he had committed suicide a couple of years after having been found guilty of indecency.

Oh, and he was only 41 years old when he died.  Thus we expected the movie to end on a sad note.  We didn’t expect that we both would be wishing we had brought tissues with us to the theater.  Or that, after leaving the theater, we both just wanted to be alone for awhile and have a good cry.

And maybe that’s why I’m furious that much of what I saw in this movie was more fiction than truth.  I am flaming red furious.  I understand that reducing a person’s life to a movie format of less than two hours would require some liberties with the facts.  But given what I’ve read since, the fabrications far outweigh the facts.  The spark of my fury was set by the The New York Review of Books and the essay Saving Alan Turing from His Friends, by Christian Caryl.  [Sadly, you have to be a subscriber to read the whole essay online.]  I was eager to read the essay, to fill in some of the gaps of Turing’s life that the movie (understandably) had to gloss over.  And then I got to this part of the essay:

“The choice seems clear:  either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius. The latter, I’m afraid, is the path chosen by director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore.” (Caryl, p.19)

I felt the blood drain from me, and then I proceeded to read aloud bits of the essay for my husband.  On the basis of two biographies of Turing (Alan Turing: The Engima by Andrew Hodges, upon which the movie claims to be based, and Alan Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age by B. Jack Copeland), Caryl precedes to describe a man who was indeed brilliant and gay, but not autistic and socially inept as portrayed by Cumberbatch.  To the contrary, Turing was admired and even well-liked by his associates at Bletchley Park.  He “could be a wonderfully engaging character when he felt like it, notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness.” (Caryl, p.19)

And it is not Turing alone who is fictionalized into “a caricature of the tortured genius.”  Caryl also notes that “the movie version [of events] is a bizarre departure from the historical record.”  This essay as well as one by L. V. Anderson in Slate go into great detail over the seemingly endless inaccuracies in The Imitation Game.

The worst inaccuracy for me has to do with Turing’s death.  The movie conflates Turing’s punishment for indecency (a “therapy” by which Turing took female hormones to “suppress” his homosexual tendencies) with his death.  The film implies that Turing was still undergoing treatment when he died, and the treatment was likely to blame.  In one of the last scenes, the most emotionally wrenching scene of all, you see Turing as an emotionally broken man, crying with such pain and despair that I almost burst out crying myself.  But, the fact is Turing’s treatment ended 14 months before his death. That inaccuracy alone made me feel betrayed and essentially f**cked with by the movie director and screenwriter.

Yes, it is tragic that Turing died so young, and his presumed suicide makes that fact even more painful (apparently there are suggestions that his eating an cyanide-laced apple was either an accident or murder).  From what I’ve read, Turing was not only brilliant and a hero, but he loved life, his friends, and being gay.  What the British system of law did to him was cruel and unusual, but apparently Turing maintained his integrity throughout the ordeal:

“By the accounts of those who knew him, he bore the injustice with fortitude, then spent the next year enthusiastically pursing projects.” (Caryl, p.20)

I would have preferred to have seen Turing this way, as the man he was, not the man that Tyldum and company imagined would gain them an Oscar.  Why not celebrate Turing’s life with a more reality-based portrayal?  Why portray him as a misunderstood, narcissistic, bumbling, and (eventually) helpless and broken-down genius if that’s not what he was at all?

Frankly, I think The Imitation Game is more about how to pull every trick to get yourself to the Oscars, than it is about Alan Turing.  But am I being fair?  Or should I take any pronouncement of “Based on a True Story” with an ocean of salt and treat it all as fiction?


Categories: Movie

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Marie A Bailey

Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.

19 replies

  1. Short answer to this question, “Or should I take any pronouncement of “Based on a True Story” with an ocean of salt and treat it all as fiction?” is yes. When it comes to based on a true story Hollywood hardly ever tells you the truth. The ones I know of that were fairly close were Apollo 13 and well that’s it. Ron Howard (director of Apollo 13) usually tries to make his historical movies as accurate as possible but will still make changes for thematic reasons (A Beautiful Mind comes to mind). Yup, I am glad I didn’t see this movie. Alan Turing has always been a favorite historical figure of mine. Weirdly it seems like Cryptonomicon had a more accurate portrayal of Alan Turing and that is a completely fictional work (great book, btw, highly recommended).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Brad. I know you’re right. Generally I roll my eyes at the “based on a true story” claims. I was just blown away that the writers took such extreme liberties, stuff that people (obviously) can easily research and refute. I think if we had read the NY Review essay first, we might have still seen the movie … or maybe just waited for it to come out on Netflix 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah. The Social Network was another recent one where the truth was shoved out the window. Good movie but not really close to the truth. Oh oh, Public Enemies, that one too. Yeah, this is kind of fun now, thinking of recent movies that are completely bonkers with the truth.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This happens all the time in Hollywood movies, I’m afraid. I thought of “A Beautiful Mind” too and recalled how shocked I was at the real story… On the other hand, a movie like “Ed Wood” was terrific because of its exaggerations. Hit or miss, I suppose…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, I feel somewhat foolish for even caring, but we really felt blindsided by all the accuracies. As if Turing’s life wasn’t interesting as it was. I never saw “A Beautiful Mind,” but read some of the reviews. My husband argues that it’s because Hollywood can’t come up with anything original so the industry just takes real stories and distorts them to fit the formula.


    1. James, thank you for reading and commenting! First, how cool that your grandmother worked at Bletchley. Second, good point about the portrayal of him as difficult to get to know. Of course, his friends might argue otherwise, but of course there would be people who would see him differently. In my own small world, I know plenty of people who garner admiration from some and disdain from others, and it can vary by how close people feel to that person.


  3. Haven’t seen the movie yet, so I didn’t read past the first line, but I’m excited to watch it. I’ve read a bit about Enigma and Bletchley park, so I’m curious about how the history is treated in this movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There you go! I was thinking that if we had read the criticisms first, we might still have seen the movie just out of curiosity. I will say that the acting is quite good, no spoiler alert there 😉


  4. Honestly, I rarely see movies anymore.

    I had the same experience with the movie they did about Captain Phillips (whose boat was captured by Somalian pirates. Tom Hanks played his character and did a fabulous job). But when I looked up the real details, I was so disappointed. The real captain Phillips was a jerk who risked the lives of his crew by going into waters he’d been repeatedly warned about, and was arrogant and didn’t really care for authority. Not to mention all the ridiculous ‘Hollywood’ tricks to make it all look better.

    So, no, I don’t think you’re wrong in feeling a sense of outrage. It’s why I love books so much more than Hollywood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, I didn’t know that about the Captain Phillips movie. I used to love going to the movies. But between the expense and issues like these, I’ve lost interest. We tend to be cinema cynics 😉


  5. Thanks so much for writing this! I’m to the point where I don’t trust any movie that’s based on real life or real facts, etc. It’s inevitable that it’s going to be Hollywood-ized and thus ruined. Such a shame that producers and screenwriters don’t give us, the audience, the benefit of the doubt when it comes to intellect and compassion. Hello! We can draw our own conclusions based on fact; we don’t need fiction, we don’t need added drama, we don’t need added emotional tension, etc., etc., etc.
    OK, I’m finished with my rant, lol. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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