Monday, February 9, 2015
Me and Christopher Against the World
I've begun rereading Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography of Alan Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma, to see how Turing's life compares to the movie version, The Imitation Game. It seems fair to do so, since the 2014 re-issues tie the book to the film.
I particularly noticed Hodges's account of Turing's relationship with his classmate and first love, Christopher Morcom, who died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 while still in his teens. The movie and the book agree that Turing's feelings for Morcom were unrequited, but the movie gives the impression (to me at any rate) that Morcom initiated the friendship as Turing's protector when the latter was being bullied at school. According to Hodges, Turing initiated the friendship, which took some time to develop. Eventually Morcom invited Turing to visit his home and meet his family, and their respective parents also developed an acquaintance. After Morcom's death, Turing sustained a relationship with Morcom's family, visiting them and even traveling with them. All this is missing from the film, which is understandable to some extent, but the fact that Turing successfully pursued, developed, and sustained a friendship with Morcom is at odds (again, to me at least) with The Imitation Game's portrait of Turing as a socially inept isolate. Turing clearly was socially awkward, but he learned to overcome it and make connections with other people.
The film continues its depiction of Turing into his codebreaking years at Bletchley, where he is still an isolate, working on his own program, at odds with the other in his unit. He takes over control of his team by going over his superior's head with a letter to Winston Churchill, who puts him in charge. He builds his computer almost alone, from nothing, naming it after Morcom, and in a Hollywood-style climax proves his machine's worth against a deadline that would mean pulling the plug on poor "Christopher," symbolically killing Turing's love once again. But the letter to Churchill was signed not only by Turing but by three others on the team, and the computer (called the Bombe because of the ticking noise it made) built at Bletchley was a development of earlier machines invented by others. Turing worked with another mathematician, Gordon Welchman, who helped make the advances in its design and construction. And so on. It's not unreasonable, for purposes of dramatic compression, for The Imitation Game, to focus on just one of the groups that worked on breaking German codes, even to give the impression that only that group achieved anything -- but it is seriously misleading to turn Alan Turing into the One Man who walked into town and beat the bad guys all by his lonesome, fighting against the misunderstanding of the ignorant mob. Turing may not have been completely comfortable working as part of a team, but he seems to have adjusted to it pretty well, much better than the movie shows. As L.V. Anderson wrote in a good piece at Slate, "One of Turing’s colleagues at Bletchley Park later recalled him as 'a very easily approachable man' and said 'we were very very fond of him'; none of this is reflected in the film." Anderson's article goes into detail on the differences between The Imitation Game and history, and is worth a read if you're interested.
There's a common tendency in apologetics for this kind of movie to claim that there's no other way to tell the story, no other narrative, so what else could they do? As I wrote before, The Imitation Game's portrayal of Turing's homosexuality may not have been motivated by personal homophobia, just creative laziness. The same goes for its depiction of Bletchley Park, which forces the history into a very familiar narrative straitjacket. That straitjacket, because of its familiarity, is comfortable for many people, and perhaps The Imitation Game wouldn't have sold as many tickets or garnered as many Oscar nominations if it had gone in a different direction. Or maybe it would have: Benedict Cumberbatch is a hot property, and would have drawn in audiences regardless. My point here is that I don't like it, and don't intend to watch it again. I'm trying to explain here why.
Compare one of my favorite films, My Brilliant Career. It flouts numerous narrative conventions: the conventionally plain heroine rejects the rich, handsome fellow who loves her and begs her to marry him, and goes on to write and publish her first novel. To my surprise, some radical gay male critics were annoyed by this. Yet the movie was a crowd-pleaser, won some awards, and made Judy Davis, who played the protagonist, an international star. (It did no harm either to Sam Neill, who played her suitor.) It can be done. Moviemakers aren't obliged to go against the current and make movies that will please me, but I'm not obliged to like their productions either. We're in better shape for gay protagonists than we were a few decades ago, but I still see The Imitation Game as a mess of bad creative choices.