February 25, 2015
The Imitation Game and the complicated byproducts of adaptation
by Josh Cohen
Graham Moore’s script for The Imitation Game was always supposed to win awards. His adaptation of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges placed first on the Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays back in 2011, Benedict Cumberbatch came on board to star, and Harvey Weinstein bought the film’s rights, making it the subject of one of his most craven Oscar campaigns yet: ads beseeched Academy voters to “Honor this man. Honor this film. And honor the movement to bring justice to the other 49,000.”
By and large, Weinstein’s cartoonishly craven efforts fell short, as The Imitation Game emerged from the 87th Oscars empty-handed in seven categories, though it was victorious in one. Moore received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work, which in a much, much subtler way, did as little to honor the man as did Weinstein’s groveling for statues.
At best, The Imitation Game is a mediocre conglomeration of tropes and trite conventions. The genius freezes out the lessers-than, then he learns to accept them. His superiors lose faith in him, and his new comrades say they’ll have to fire them, too. The genius has a Eureka moment, and he breaks off into a sprint without a word, leaving the others to chase after him. Across flashbacks and flashforwards, the line “Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects” echoes.
It makes sense why these moments would work on paper; they’re all scenes you’ve seen in other movies. When Matthew Goode and company put their jobs on the line as Charles Dance dismisses Cumberbatch, I half-expected the Notre Dame football team to come in and put their jerseys on Coach Devine’s desk. As the cryptographers run after Turing, the drama is entirely manufactured; you know they’ll catch up to him, breathless, and that he’ll solve everything, because this is a film in which only one man has any answers; the others can only follow in his wake, vestigial stock characters in period clothes, calling “Alan! Alan!” like screaming chipmunks.
At least Keira Knightley gets to have a brain and a backstory and some multidimensionality as the fraught heterosexual love interest. But even her moment to stand up for herself is rooted in The Importance of the Work, a glimpse of empowerment undercut by its relation to what the man before her is spearheading, framed by how he won’t stop her, spoken through gritted teeth like a supervillainess, not a grounded human being.
Then again, neither is Cumberbatch’s Turing. Sherlock has proven he’s a wonderful player of specificities of a benevolent sociopath. The way Moore writes Turing, he’s blandly and broadly antisocial, idiosyncratic without any idiosyncrasies. Moore’s scenes contain much dialogue about Brilliance and Greatness and Importance, but few tangible examples; this script about the covert hero who swung World War II contains no scenes of battle, bloodshed, or the Nazis he helped defeat. Not that Turing was ever in contact with any of them, but his accomplishment, and the bloody calculus of broken-code-protecting cost-benefit analysis that followed are depicted without context.
Moore’s contextualizing Turing’s homosexuality, on the other hand, represented The Imitation Game, and nonfictional adaptation, at its least competent. Slate’s L.V. Anderson broke down a plethora of misrepresentations in The Imitation Game, ranging from the negligibly consequential, like Turing being well liked and popular at Bletchley Park in real life, to the damning and pernicious. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read Hodges’ biography and am taking Anderson’s word for both its veracity and its quality. “Masterful!” says L.V. Anderson of Slate.)
Soviet spy John Cairncross is a real figure in Britain’s WWII history and was at Bletchley Park while Turing was. He is a member of Turing’s team in the movie, but Hodges never presented any evidence that Turing and Cairncross even knew each other. So for Moore to invent a plot in which Cairncross intuits Turing’s secret and threatens to out him if Turing reports his colleague’s espionage, to fabricate that homosexuality put Turing in a position to become accomplice to treasonous activity is disgusting along the same lines of the archaic gay-fearing laws under which Turing would later be punished. In the process of dispelling the notion that homosexuality is to be a threat to civilized society, Moore conjures from thin air a scenario in which it jeopardizes national security.
Turing’s trial is not shown, nor his sentencing, which led to his suicide. That detail is reserved for postscript titles rather than earnest portrayal. For this film to explicate rather than examine the grave injustice of Alan Turing’s life is not altogether surprising given its surface-level treatment of his accomplishments, but it is nonetheless a dishonor to the man, let alone the memories of the 49,000 others convicted of gross indecency.
It would be so easy to dismiss The Imitation Game and its storytelling shortcomings, but any hope of that evaporated well before its Oscar campaign began. And, as it turns out, it might not be the best possible outcome.
Despite the way in which Turing’s homosexuality is (and isn’t) portrayed on screen, the Human Rights Campaign honored the cast and filmmakers for publicizing his tragedy, and Turing’s family is now demanding the British government pardon the 49,000 others as it finally did the man in 2013. Whether or not this dramatization of Turing’s life was the best possible call to arms for his legacy, people are rallying together to challenge to right the injustice he and those like him faced, thanks to The Imitation Game.
There’s also Moore, who did as much good with his Oscar platform as did anyone at this year’s ceremony.
Alan Turing never got to stand on a stage like this and look out at all of these disconcertingly attractive faces. And I do. And that’s the most unfair thing I think I’ve ever heard. In this brief time here, what I want to use it to do is to say this: When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong,” Moore said. “And now, I’m standing here and I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere: Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different. And then, when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.”
As great art, The Imitation Game falls short. As social drama, it fails calamitously. But as a civil rights flashpoint and a motivator for greater acceptance, it has superseded its flaws, and it is surely a success.
Which leads us to the last odd beneficiaries of a particularly convoluted Oscar-winning journey: Andrew Hodges and Princeton University Press. The tweaks to and bastardizations of Turing’s life story as told by Hodges have resulted in something of a second life for Alan Turing: The Enigma.
Originally published in 1983, the latest available edition prior to the film adaptation dates back to 1992; that paperback is only available secondhand now, having since gone out of print in the United States. Princeton University Press’ Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game was published November 10th, 2014, 18 days prior to the US release of the film. Crazy rabbit-hole of a title and all, the new publication currently sits just outside the top 50 on Amazon’s bestseller list and 19th on The New York Times combined print and ebook nonfiction list.
The hope has to be that people will gain a fuller knowledge of the man and the circumstances surrounding his Importance from reading the book more so than from watching the film. It’s a knowingly vain hope; the reach of the biography will not exceed that of the adaptation, which has made $161 million at the box office, and there will inevitably be a portion of viewers who accept it as an accurate, appropriate telling of Turing’s story.
All the more reason for others to read the book; to expose to the film’s historical inadequacies, as Anderson did; and to focus attention on the state-sanctioned discrimination Turing and 49,000 others faced that was once deemed routine, as his family and their supporters are. To bring Turing’s history into the public consciousness, so that those who haven’t read Hodges’ book, like me, are able to approach LGBT issues today with a truer awareness of their lineage.
If you want to honor the man, and honor the movement to bring justice to the 49,000 others, then honor the man, and honor the movement to bring justice to the 49,000 others. Appreciate the film for inspiring people to honor Turing and the rest, but don’t honor it.
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.