The Imitation Game is the new film starring Sherlock Holmes as Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, and Keira Knightley as Kate Winslet as Joan Clarke. Together they are two mathematicians in World War II trying to build a bombe. The film will soon be available on DVD, blu-ray, and as an animated GIF set on tumblr.
These are the Imitation Game FAQs.
What’s The Imitation Game? Is it some sort of ‘70s gameshow involving Bruce Forsyth and Mike Yarwood?
First of all, no. Second of all, how old are your references, are you like a million years old? Thirdly, The Imitation Game is about the famous mathematician Alan Turing, it cuts between three periods of his life, namely his school days, breaking the Enigma code in World War II, and his arrest in 1951 for gross indecency – i.e. being gay. The title is a reference to a paper Turing wrote about computers, and whether computers can think.
I’ve heard of Alan Turing! Wasn’t there a big thing about him getting a pardon or something a couple of years ago? Did that ever happen?
It did. Turing was arrested for being gay at a time when it was illegal. They put him on hormone treatment to “cure” him, and in the end he was found dead by cyanide poisoning which the coroner concluded was suicide. Yet he saved countless lives during World War II.
This is the breaking the Enigma code thing?
That’s right. The Germans were sending their secret messages using a code machine called Enigma which they thought was unbreakable. If the allies can break those codes they’ll be able to read all those German secrets. That was slightly useful.
So is that what the film is about, breaking Enigma in World War II? That sounds cool.
Is it a good film?
Oh yeah, it is. It’s beautiful. There’s drama, excitement, code breaking, World War II-ness. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll write a review.
Great! I’ll definitely go to see it then.
You sound like you know a lot about this Alan Turing person.
Is it accurate?
Wait, what? You were praising it a moment ago!
Indeed, it is an excellent film. It is also wildly inaccurate.
Oh, but you’re like some sort of expert, this is just going to be complaints about ridiculous things like they drink Ovaltine and that wasn’t a popular brand until 1953. Don’t take it so seriously, things like that don’t make it a bad film.
Oh I agree! Sure I could write a list like that and pick apart all the anachronisms and confused chronology, but to that would be missing the point. By dramatising events not only does that make the story clearer and easier to understand, but it allows you to reach your audience on an emotional level – to make your audience care. And The Imitation Game will make you care. But at the same time, The Imitation Game dramatises events so far that it steps into misinformation.
I’ve just checked Wikipedia, it says Ovaltine was exported to Britain in 1909 so you’re fine there.
Ok, what are these major problems? Do they at least get the stuff about Alan Turing right?
Sure, unless you count things like his personality and motivations.
I do count things like that. I’ve seen the trailer, it looks like Benedict Cumberbatch is really winding up the people he worked with. That’s the problem with being a genius I suppose!
Exactly, in the film it is clear that, as a result of being a genius, Turing is finding it difficult to interact with the people around him, coming off as arrogant and humourless. Pfft! Geniuses eh. Amiright!
But this isn’t quite the Turing I know. By all accounts, he was socially awkward, not in an arrogant way but in a shy way. He was the classic disorganised boffin, with a high pitched voice, a stutter, and was extremely self-effacing. Think more Peter Falk than Benedict Cumberbatch.
I see, well done casting agents.
Khaaan! *shakes fist*
And how would you know anyway?
True, I’ve never met Alan Turing – he died in 1954 so there aren’t many people left who have – but I’ve met some of the people who have and are still around. Like people who used to work with him at Bletchley Park in World War II, so they would know. I’ve also read the excellent biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges on which this film is based. Hodges had some problems with the script as well.
Well I guess it could be worse. They could have made him straight or something, and given him a girlfriend. Imagine that!
Yeah, about that.
No! They didn’t! For the love of Pete!
Wait wait wait. That bit was sort of ok. In 1941 Alan Turing did get engaged to one of the girls who worked for him, another mathematician called Joan Clarke. She was a real person. Turing confessed to Joan that he had homosexual tendencies the day after he proposed, apparently she was unfazed by this and they remained engaged for six months or so. That’s just the way posh people in the 1940s operated I guess.
That story is rarely told, and it is fascinating. It’s true that Turing’s biographer thought they overemphasised this relationship, and there were accusations that the film was “straight-washing” the character, but I think they pulled it off.
So it’s clear that Turing was gay?
Yes, in fact he is absolutely gay in the three periods of his life covered by the film. His first crush as a school boy, trying to fit in as an adult, and then the eventual consequences of that including his arrest in 1951.
Phew. At least the story is accurate, people will learn loads about the story of the World War II code breakers.
Weeeell… if someone were to write an essay about Alan Turing and the WWII code breakers based on what they learnt in this film I would probably give it an F.
It’s like the writer had the gist of the facts and then went, ah that’s enough. You might expect to sacrifice some accuracy for the sake of drama, but a lot of the time there was no reason why it couldn’t have been dramatic and accurate.
What did they get wrong about code breaking then? Is this going to be some boring answer involving diagrams and funny maths squiggles?
I can do that if you want, but maybe later. But there is a very dramatic moment in the film when Turing suddenly realises the trick to break the code.
Turing has to fight to get permission to build his code breaking machine. So Turing breaks all the rules and writes a letter to Winston Churchill himself and gets himself put in charge. He angers his superiors and alienates his co-workers with his single minded obsession of building his machine. Tempers flare as it appears the machine is a complete disaster: the machine doesn’t work. Then in a flash of inspiration Turing realises that they need to input some known piece of text from the code, a phrase they can guess – something like “Heil Hitler”. Turing tears out of the pub, runs across town, his co-workers trailing behind. If they input this guess into the machine they can break the code!
The audience gasp!
Wow. That sounds exciting! What’s wrong with that?
Imagine a film about the invention of the train, in which people said “This is all well and good, Stephenson, but it doesn’t work. These wheels are rubbish and it keeps sinking in the mud. What were you thinking!” Followed by a scene of Stephenson later bursting into their office saying “I’ve got it! We’ll put it on tracks!”
That. The code breaking machine was designed to work on known phrases like “Heil Hitler”, that’s what it was built to do. You could still have had a dramatic realisation scene, or a scene when they turn on the machine for the first time, but instead they decided to make the machine out of madeupium.
I do laugh at the scenes of the machine just spinning away with no input.
Still sounds like a technical thing only you would care about.
Maybe, but you remember all that stuff about writing to Churchill to put himself in charge, and alienating his co-workers. These events pretty much dominate the story for the first half of the film. None of that happened.
What, so the majority of the film is about stuff that didn’t happen?
Pretty much. In the film, his superior wants him out, and doesn’t understand how a mathematician can solve a problem where others have failed. Meanwhile his co-workers hate him because he won’t work as a team. He is alone and no one else can see the potential of what he trying to make.
The truth is, Commander Denniston had been in charge of the code breakers for twenty years and knew exactly the sort of person that was needed to break Enigma. Turing was in charge from the beginning and, together with the other academics, they worked on making Turing’s idea a success. There is no record of them punching each other in the face.
So the film makers created a film about a lot of people being antagonistic towards each other for no reason?
Yeah. The jerks.
So, what, was this code breaking machine they were trying to make some kind of early computer? That’s pretty cool!
The code breaking machine Turing designed was called The Bombe, and that’s definitely how it comes across in the film, as a kind of computer.
Was it then?
As a young man Turing had conceived of a hypothetical machine, called a Universal Machine, which could run any computation. All it needed was a set of instructions – if you give it a different set of instructions and it would perform a different job – that’s what a computer does, like apps on a smartphone.
But the Bombe machines were definitely not Universal Machines, they were made to do one job – find Enigma settings. It could no more change its purpose than a speaker can turn into a hairdryer. You can try, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Oh, and I might as well point out that the first Bombe machine was called Victory. Isn’t that a cool name. It wasn’t called Christopher, that’s just something they changed to add a significance to the name that wasn’t really there.
Eh? Why is Christopher significant?
Because that was the name of Turing’s boyhood crush. They used to do science together, and both wanted to go to Cambridge. The love was quite possibly unrequited, nothing was acted upon. When Christopher died young, Turing was devastated. It’s really sad.
Aww. So he called his machine Christopher! That’s so sweet.
Yeah, just to repeat, the machine was called Victory. And they ended up building 200 Bombe machines.
Ah, now I saw this in the trailer! They used a crossword competition to recruit people. That’s how they recruited Joan Clarke, they would never have recruited her otherwise, the sexists!
There was a crossword competition, that’s a great story, but it’s not how Joan Clarke was recruited. She was recommended by one of her lecturers from Cambridge because she was a very talented mathematician.
There was sexism in that Joan was paid less to do the same job as a man, but the film basically boils that down to “Haha! Women can’t be mathematicians!” It’s about as subtle as a brick in the face.
So the made up stuff is just characters’ personalities, motivations, how the characters worked together and what they did. Is that everything?
Yeah, just the majority of events in the film. And the spy stuff.
Not the spy stuff too! Spy stuff is cool!
You bet! And you’ll love this spy. He is horrible. And there’s one moment when he gives Turing a terrible ultimatum. When you watch it in the cinema you should boo him. Boo! BOO!!
What is true is that there was someone passing information onto the Soviets, but he worked in translation, not code breaking, and wasn’t discovered till after the war. He would have had no contact with Alan Turing. Your tolerance for that plot line depends on how far you are happy to stretch the phrase “based on a true story”.
In a bizarre twist, the need for total secrecy ends in them hiding the fact they have successfully broken Enigma from everyone, including Commander Denniston.
Hang on, I thought Denniston was the guy in charge?
Isn’t it important for the guy in charge to know the code had been broken?
You would think so, yes.
I think you just don’t like films. Go watch a documentary.
Not at all! I just think it could have easily been accurate and dramatic. As a film it is excellent. And if you know absolutely nothing about Turing you will learn that he was a mathematician, a World War II code breaker, and did something important with computers. You’ll learn about his arrest in 1951. And you will feel the drama of breaking those secret messages.
One scene where the dramatisation really does work is the moment they realise one of their ships in the Atlantic is about to be attacked, and they can’t act on this information without revealing the code had been broken. One of the team is particularly distraught because he has a brother on that ship, yet Turing has to be the heartless one and insist they cannot act. That is a perfect dramatisation of the dilemma faced by code breakers every day.
I hope people will see the film and be inspired to find out more! But be warned, it’s about as accurate as I am popular at parties.
Right, fine. I’ll watch it, and then I’ll go watch a documentary or read that biography to find out what really happened. How about that?
You do that.
And which documentaries or books do you recommend?
There’s Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing on which this film is based. It’s a bit of a tome, but thoroughly readable. This book more about the man than the maths, but when he gives you the gist of the idea, you know it’s an accurate gist.
If you want an introduction to Enigma including rotors and all that stuff, get The Code Book by Simon Singh. It’s a brilliant history of codes, with details explained in an understandable way when you want them.
If you want some details of how Enigma was broken by someone who was actually there, read The Hut Six Story by Gordon Welchman – a man whose contribution is criminally cut out of The Imitation Game and attributed wholesale to Hugh Alexander who wasn’t even present at that time. Figure that one out, I can’t.
If you want a documentary the definitive one is Station X, a documentary series made by Channel 4 in the late 90s, it’s worth seeking out.
Breaking the Code is another movie based on the life of Alan Turing, this time with Derek Jacobi. That concentrates more on the gay issues, but includes some Enigma stuff too.
There’s also the film Enigma with Kate Winslet, remember that? I have no issues with the accuracy in that film. Also, a lot of people think it’s slightly dull. Make of that what you will.
You don’t want to see my FAQs for the film U-571.
What was your favourite nit-picking inaccuracy?
When Hugh Alexander is introduced as a British chess champion, which Alexander corrects with “twice”. It’s true, Hugh Alexander was British chess champion twice. The second time in 1956.
Hugh Alexander will correct mistakes you make about things that are going to happen IN THE FUTURE!