The British mathematician Andrew Hodges is the author of the 1983 book Alan Turing: The Enigma, the acclaimed biography of the titular pioneer in computational mathematics and artificial intelligence. The biography is both the inspiration for director Morten Tyldum’s 2014 movie The Imitation Game and the primary source material from which screenwriter Graham Moore derived his Academy Award-winning script. The adaptation is loose, however, and Hodges’ book is dissimilar from Tyldum’s movie in many ways. For one, the movie is not a documentary about Alan Turing, which any faithful rendering of Hodges’ long and painstakingly researched book would require. It is instead a dramatic biopic that tells a story based upon Turing’s life. Many of the factual historical and biographical details are shifted out of chronology and altered in order to produce a feasible and gripping narrative.
The historical inaccuracies that crop up in the film do not, in my opinion, detract from its overall quality. In my estimation the film serves as an excellent springboard for discussing what really happened to Turing and the relationships and events that formed his legacy. That is what I aim to discuss in this review of The Imitation Game, which is a good film in its own right. In one of the best roles he has taken on, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in the movie, turning in a compelling performance.
A brief synopsis of the highlights of Alan Turing’s life and work is in order, since his is unfortunately not a household name for most of the general public, or at least was not prior to the release of the movie. Alan Mathison Turing, born in London on June 23, 1912, was a pioneer in what was in his time the frontier field of computer science. He worked as a cryptographer in England during the early years of World War II, his greatest accomplishment perhaps being cracking the German Enigma code using a cryptography machine he developed and built, consisting of relay switches and rotors. Below is a photograph of the machine, which is modeled beautifully in The Imitation Game.
It has been estimated by some historians that Turing’s breaking of the Enigma code “shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years,” saving millions of lives. In breaking the code, it is no exaggeration to say that Alan Turing helped change the course of history.
Turing went on to distinguish himself in other ways as well. In particular, he is widely credited with being the first to develop the modern concept of artificial intelligence, and in this connection is perhaps best known for what we now call the Turing Test. Essentially, this was a thought experiment proposed by Turing in a seminal 1950 paper. He asked the general question, “Can machines think?’ and more specifically imagined constructing a machine that is functionally indiscriminate from a human being. If a human were communicating with this hypothetical machine, could he or she be made to believe that it was another human being, or would the artificially-intelligent machine always betray itself as such in any communication? The machine is said to have passed the Turing Test if it succeeds in fooling its human interlocutors into thinking they are communicating with another human being. In the many years since Turing’s original proposal, the bar for passing the Turing Test has been raised significantly as progress in A.I. studies has advanced. In this way, Alan Turing is widely regarded as the father of modern computational theory and of artificial intelligence. Turing called the test in his thought experiment the “Imitation Game,” and this is where the title of Tyldum’s movie comes from.
The great tragedy of Alan Turing’s life is that he was both legally and physically persecuted for being homosexual, which was at that time a criminal offense in the United Kingdom. Turing did not take any great pains to hide his homosexuality and in fact was very open about it, almost to the point of brash protest against the discriminatory laws in his country. After being convicted of homosexual acts in 1952, the court allowed him to choose either imprisonment or a hormonal treatment that involved chemical castration. Turing chose the latter, and it was the hormonal regimen he underwent that most likely led to his death by suicide in 1954. This conclusion is consistent with the mental anguish, dementia, and other harmful side effects that chemical castration is now known to facilitate.
Alan’s mother Ethel Sara Turing firmly believed that the official inquest’s determination of suicide was a hoax. Up until her own death, she was convinced that he did not in fact commit suicide but was murdered. This is now a minority opinion, and there is a general consensus among historians that Turing did indeed take his own life and that his untimely death at the age of 41 was ultimately a result of his legal punishment.
Interestingly, his mother’s refusal to accept the ruling of suicide may have been planned by Alan himself. He died of cyanide poisoning, and Andrew Hodges suggests in his book that Turing committed suicide in such a way as to make ambiguous the question of whether his death was self-inflicted or accidental. Knowing that it would emotionally devastate his mother to know that he took his own life, Turing wanted to give his mother some level of plausible deniability that his death was deliberate. The dose of cyanide he ingested was placed in an apple that Turing ate. Hodges notes in his book that when Turing watched Walt Disney’s film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1938, he was “very taken with the scene where the Wicked Witch dangled an apple on a string into a boiling brew of poison” and that like Snow White, “he ate a poisoned apple, dipped in the witches’ brew.” And herein lies the ambiguity that allowed for the “suicide vs accident” controversy. Some researchers have pointed out that because of the proximity of the apple to Turing’s lab, it could have accidentally come into contact with cyanide. Others suggest the cyanide could easily have been inhaled accidentally rather than ingested. There is therefore some legitimate controversy to a small degree, and the schools of thought differing on the nature of Turing’s death have yet to come to an agreement. However, some entries in the accidental death scenario tend to take on conspiratorial tones, which the majority of historians and biographers find less plausible than the conventional verdict of suicide.
Fact and Fiction in The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game, as we have noted above, is a reference to what has come to be known as the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. But the movie’s narrative makes clear that the title has another layer of meaning. Alan Turing himself is presented as machine-like, and the film features a constant interplay and transposition of humans and machines. For example, the cryptography machine designed and built by Turing is presented in the movie as being essentially an extension of Turing’s character. In this sense, the movie stays true to the spirit Hodges’ book, in which much emphasis is placed on Alan Turing’s personal struggle to find meaningful connections between the logical and the physical.
A more obvious instance of this transposition comes during the scene in which Turing is being interrogated by a Detective Nock (played by Rory Kinnear) who is investigating the charges of homosexuality that have led to his arrest. During the interrogation, Alan asks the detective if he would like to play the Imitation Game:
ALAN TURING: It’s a test, of sorts. For determining whether something is a machine, or a human being.
DETECTIVE NOCK: How do we play?
ALAN TURING: There’s a judge, and a subject. The judge asks questions, and based on the subject’s answers, he determines: Who is he speaking with? What is he speaking with? All you have to do is ask me a question.
At the end of the movie, we are back in the interrogation room where Alan has just finished telling his life story. “Now, Detective,” he tells Nock, “you get to judge. That’s how the game works. . . . What am I? Am I a person? Am I a machine?”
The movie effects the machine-like quality of Turing’s character by presenting his psychosocial personality as landing somewhere on the autism spectrum, his social difficulties being typical of Asperger syndrome. But this was probably not true of the real Turing. According to Hodges’ biography, Turing had a distinct sense of humor, enjoyed several close friendships throughout his life, and had little or no difficulty in parsing social cues. He was described by one of his Bletchley Park colleagues as “a very easily approachable man,” and “a delightful person to work with.” While it is certainly true that the historical Turing was in some ways detached, aloof from his peers, and eccentric in a number of ways, these traits were likely due more to cultural factors than to autism or other mental factors. By portraying Turing in this way, the film taps into a stereotype, prevalent in modern popular culture, about what constitutes the trademarks of genius in individuals. But placed in the context of the film’s overarching theme, the artistic license taken with Turing’s personality both enhances the central narrative of a machine-like person striving to design and build person-like machines and adds an additional layer of dramatic conflict.
The movie’s alternative portrait of Turing’s personality has been a sticking point for many critics. One reviewer, for example, is concerned that “Cumberbatch’s narcissistic, detached Alan has more in common with the actor’s title character in Sherlock than with the Turing of Hodges’ biography.” But this judgment overlooks, I think, the multilayered acting ability that Cumberbatch brings to his portrayal of Turing. New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott recognizes this added layer of complexity, noting Cumberbatch’s “curious ability to suggest cold detachment and acute sensitivity at the same time.”
While cold detachment was not a defining trait of the historical Alan Turing, he was almost certainly an acutely sensitive individual. One gets the impression from reading Hodges’ biography that Turing had a fundamental sense of self and that he wanted to conduct his lifestyle accordingly. As Turing came of age, “he found himself to be an ordinary English homosexual atheist mathematician,” to use Hodges’ words. Those were the “axioms” of his life, and he was constantly reminded that living them out authentically would be extremely difficult. Turing’s personality militated against what was expected in both the polite society and the legal system of the culture in which he lived, and that would have sufficed to contribute to any detachment or aloofness in his conduct.
Fortunately, The Imitation Game does go beyond the stereotype of mental predisposition and autistic spectra to explore the real axioms of Turing’s life, particularly his homosexuality and the struggles that entailed. The movie includes scenes of Turing’s childhood schooldays in 1928 when he was a student at the Sherborne boarding school in Dorset. In the film, the young Alan (played by Alex Lawther) befriends a classmate named Christopher Morcom (played by Jack Bannon). The two boys grow very close, and Alan begins to develop romantic feelings for Christopher. Alan eagerly awaits the return of Christopher from a holiday, anxious to finally declare his love for him. But Christopher fails to return, and Alan learns from the headmaster that Christopher had died of bovine tuberculosis while he was away.
Like most other plot elements in the movie, the broad brush strokes of this storyline are historically accurate while the fine details are fudged and altered to fit the needs of the film narrative. Christopher Morcom was a real person who had a close friendship with Alan while attending Sherborne, and he did pass away unexpectedly. But unlike in the movie, Morcom died three years after Alan first met him. The real Morcom was also not homosexual, having rebuffed Alan’s approaches. This aspect of their relationship is absent in the movie, which aims for dramatic effect by having Alan learn of Christopher’s death while waiting to express his romantic feelings for the first time. The real Turing was openly devastated about Morcom’s death and did not hide his grief as Lawther’s Turing does in the movie. In fact, Alan maintained a close relationship with the Morcom family for many years after Christopher’s death.
Furthermore, Alan Turing did not name his deciphering machine “Christopher” as he does in the movie. The machine was known as the “Bombe,” so named because of the loud ticking noises produced by its rotors as it tested letter combinations. Nor did Turing invent the first version of the Bombe, as implied in the movie. Alan’s machine, which was dubbed “Victory,” was a variation of the “bomba kryptologiczna,” first designed by Polish cryptanalysts in 1938 before Turing began working at Bletchley Park. The Polish machine worked well until the Germans found a way to reconfigure their Enigma scrambling devices, rendering the Bomba useless and forcing Polish cryptanalysts to go back to the drawing board of manual operations. Turing’s innovation in the design of the British Bombe was to devise a mechanized method for predicting the presence of plaintext (called cribs) in the scrambled messages, based on the logical “probable word” principle. The application of this principle is what saved the day early in the war and helped break Enigma. And unlike in the movie, wherein Turing is depicted as a lone inventor, the process of designing and building this new and improved version of the Polish Bombe was a collaborative effort.
In the movie, Turing and his Bletchley Park colleagues have to face significant technical difficulties with the machine for a long period of time after its initial construction before finally hitting upon a sudden insight that allows them to solve the Enigma puzzle in one highly dramatic fell swoop, a scene pregnant with both emotion and suspense. This kind of sudden epiphany did not happen historically. In reality, the road to victory (pardon the pun) was gradual and cumulative. The Bletchley Park team had both successes and setbacks early on. They reconfigured the machine several times over after each setback and then solved a new piece of the puzzle after each successive reconfiguration. The timeline is altered in the movie both because of time constraints and for dramatic effect. But the movie still retains the key insight that allowed the historical Turing and his colleagues to crack Enigma, namely the elimination of unlikely combinations and the inclusion of more likely combinations through mathematical analysis. This process significantly reduced the number of possible code combinations that require testing, thereby reducing by orders of magnitude the time it took for the machine to decipher the coded message of each day.
Imitation has the Germans changing their codes every day, giving the Bletchley Park team only hours each day to break Enigma and forcing them to start their codebreaking over from scratch at the end of every 24-hour period. The implication made in the film is that the task of cracking Enigma was nearly impossible; the number of possible permutations was staggeringly high, far too many for the bombe machine to handle. This is one of the film’s strong points; Tyldum does a great job of capturing the tension and frustration involved in the process of eliminating variables in order to make the time required to crack the code more manageable. With millions of lives on the line and with the entire world in turmoil, it is hard to imagine the pressure Turing and his colleagues must have been under. Cumberbatch shines particularly well in this aspect of his role. The real Turing thrived under pressure, and this is reflected in Cumberbatch’s acting.
The race against time was run by thousands of people who worked on the codebreaking project at Bletchley Park and elsewhere, but Imitation gives no sense of this massive collaboration. Instead, the movie focuses on one small group of cryptographers, consisting of four men and one woman. While the movie does allude to the wider community of Enigma codebreakers by showing scenes of a roomful of people transcribing, translating and interpreting messages, it does not quite do justice to the hundreds of cryptographers who in real life toiled away at Bletchley Park. This is more of a distillation than an omission; Imitation simply reduced the number of people involved in the project to a manageable set and changed some aspects of the historical relationships between the characters, all for dramatic effect. For example, the real-life Alan Turing probably never met the MI6 character who appears in the movie.
More conspicuously inaccurate is the movie’s major plot element in which Turing and his colleagues are given the responsibility of deciding when and how to use the intelligence they receive after breaking the Enigma code. That is not what actually happened. The power of strategic decision based on the intelligence acquired by the British Bombe was not laid on the shoulders of a small group of civilian codebreakers, but was rather given handed over to much higher administrative levels in the British government. Also inaccurate is the movie’s suggestion that Turing and his team had to exercise great caution in handling the intercepted German intelligence, taking care not to allow the Nazis to discover that their code system had been cracked. In contradiction to this, most historians agree that the Nazis were simply convinced that their code was unbreakable in principle. In their hubris and arrogance, they ignored all evidence that it had in fact been broken.
The historical foibles aside, The Imitation Game is overall a very good movie. A major theme running throughout is summarized nicely by the character of Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” This theme is one with which I and many others can strongly identify. The filmmakers handle this theme skillfully by imbuing the movie with a tone of sympathy for the “oddball” type of individual, who finds himself an outlier living out life on the outskirts of mainstream society, and the story told is ultimately about how important and relevant such outcasts are in a society that under-appreciates their contributions and insights. Imitation is one of those rare films in which a scientist is presented as a hero, and it shines as a cinematic celebration of science, knowledge, hard work, and intelligence.