The Imitation Game

This season’s Hollywood math/physics extravaganza is starting to come to an end. For coverage of the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, I enthusiastically recommend Michael Harris’s new piece at Slate which just appeared.

The final high profile production, one promoted at the Silicon Valley ceremony, should be The Imitation Game, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, to be released on November 28th. I had the chance to attend a preview screening last night, featuring a Q and A with the film’s screenwriter. The short version of a review is: go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

Turing’s story was little known until 1983, when Hodges published his biography, which is just fantastically good. Hodges (see his web-site here) is a mathematical physicist who began working with Penrose back in the 1970s on twistor diagrams, work that has recently played a prominent role in the hot topic of new methods for computing scattering amplitudes. The Hodges book made Turing a famous figure, partly for his code-breaking role, partly as a martyr for gay rights given the horrific story of the way he was treated because of his sexual orientation. By 1986 the biography had inspired a play, Breaking the Code, that ran in London and New York, and then became a 1996 movie. There have been other film treatments of the story since, including the 2011 Codebreaker.

Other than a few general facts, the part of the film set at Bletchley Park has little relationship to reality, with almost none of what is portrayed actually having happened. As just one example of the sort of thing that was made up out of whole cloth, the film has Turing discovering a Soviet spy, who uses his homosexuality to blackmail him into silence. Cumberbatch plays a compelling character, but one much like his Sherlock Holmes on TV, not like the Turing of the Hodges book, or like any other mathematically talented person I’ve ever known.

It often mystifies me why people who make movies based on fascinating real stories sometimes just ignore what really happened and instead make up a much less interesting plot. In this case, hearing from the screenwriter after the film made the problem clear. He seems convinced that Turing is a little known figure, and that it is his job to reveal this unknown story to the public, unaware that this was done much better back when he was in pre-school. From his comments, he never bothered to understand anything about what Turing actually did during the war, in particular he is convinced that Turing’s big breakthrough was to realize that to break codes it was helpful to know some phrases that were likely to be in the message (e.g. “Heil Hitler”). He explained that he was sure that Turing saw himself as a figure in a thriller, and that informed how he wrote the film. All in all, he had a very simplistic agenda (to reveal the unknown fact that a gay man had won World War II) which completely overwhelmed any interest in the details of what actually happened.

The contrast with the recent Stephen Hawking biopic is striking. That film took some dramatic license, and simplified some complex people and situations, but it didn’t just completely make things up, and the star’s portrayal of Hawking was convincingly true to life. The memory of Alan Turing would have been much better served by a similar degree of respect for reality.

Update: The Guardian has a review, which explains some of what the film gets wrong. For something with more detail, see this.

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24 Responses to The Imitation Game

  1. S says:

    This is very discouraging to hear. “Breaking the Code” is a fine play — it’s too bad, even mystifying, that they didn’t trace that back to its source (which would have been easy).

    I second your mystification point. Years ago, I was involved in a society devoted to the work of a writer (who had an exceptionally interesting life) and we were contacted by a group of filmmakers who were making a fairly high-profile film about him and wanted help locating an example of his handwriting so that they could get every detail perfect. We obliged, of course, but imagine our surprise when they had completely substituted his life with far less interesting Hollywood boilerplate in the film.

    Some things never change I guess.

  2. Jeff M says:


    Not to pick nits, but describing Turing as “mathematically talented” is kind of like saying that Micky Mantle was a pretty good ballplayer. 🙂

    I am not a logician, nor do I play one on television, but Turing’s proof of Godel’s theorem is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And he did much much much more than that.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    The Hodges book is credited as “inspiration” for the film, and some of what’s in the early part of the book about Turing’s experiences in school and his first love for another boy is used in the film. I suspect though that once the story moved to Turing’s actual career and the work done during the war, this became technical material the screenwriter had no understanding of or interest in. From then on, supposedly more dramatic fiction replaces non-fiction.

    The Soviet spy business is a weird example, since it’s not only a fantasy the writer dreamed up, but exactly the fantasy that later motivated Turing’s homophobic persecutors (i.e. that his homosexuality made him someone the Soviets could blackmail).

  4. bugannoyer says:

    In case you want to read a more entertaining fantasy involving imagined Turing activities during WW II, I recommend Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”. Turing is a secondary character.

  5. Sammy says:

    If anyone has any doubts about reading the Hodges biography, then I should pass on that in 1983 I loaned my copy of the 1st edition to a couple who had actually worked with Turing. They both said it was very faithful to the man they knew.

  6. Yatima says:

    Seconding “buannoyer” on “Cryptonomicon”. It’s a fun but sometimes overly loquacious story. A notable book of 1999.

    It is an interesting twist of history that Alan Turing, inventor of the concept of the Universal Turing Machine, designed the specialized “Bombe” to break the Enigma cipher in Hut 8, while the world’s first fully programmable electronic digital computer, the Colossus, was designed by Tommy Flowers just a hut or two away to break the Lorenz cipher.

    P.S. @Jeff M.: “Turing’s proof of Godel’s theorem”. I suppose you are talking about the negative answer to Hilbert’s “Entscheidungsproblem”: Given a formula in First-Order Logic, is there a procedure that can say whether the formula is a tautology or not? Gödel’s completeness theorem proves that if the answer is “yes”, this will eventually be proved (which practically may take longer than the universe’s lifetime though). Turing showed that if the answer is “no”, the procedure may well never find out. Alonzo Church proved the same a bit earlier using a different approach.

  7. Jeff M says:


    Yes, but I was keeping it simple for the physics types 🙂

  8. anon. says:

    There’s a nice extract from Turing’s popular article, “Solvable and Unsolvable Problems”, published by Science News in 1954, here:

  9. Em Comments says:

    “Turing’s story was little known until 1983”

    Yes exactly. That’s why the Turing Award ( which is described as ‘the “highest distinction in Computer science” and “Nobel Prize of computing”‘ was created in 1966 as he was unknown until 17 years later.

  10. dpb says:

    @em comments

    Turing was known as a pioneering computer scientist and mathematician in the 50s and 60s, but very few people had any idea what he was up to during the war. People from Bletchley Park tended not to talk.

  11. Visitor says:

    No one else seems to care but I am profoundly offended by the idea that Turing “won the war”.

  12. Dom says:

    Visitor, you may be British and I may have the wrong idea, I don’t know but speaking as a British person, the oft-repeated snippet from the trailer where the character says something about “Breaking an unbreakable code and winning the war” is to my ears typical British humour where we will matter of factly put together two difficult and possibly unrelated things as if it was a formality.
    Having said this and having read Hodges book when it was first published as my late father had a great interest in Enigma, the film looks like a missed opportunity.

  13. srp says:

    Turing’s work gets what sounds like better treatment than John Nash’s did in A Beautiful Mind. How hard would it have been to get the Nash equilibrium concept right instead of mangling it completely? It’s not that abstruse an idea.

  14. Michael Shain says:

    Our local cinema, The Phoenix, in East Finchley, London had a special showing of The Imitation Game followed by a question and answer session with a panel a member of which included a very lively Ruth Bourne well into her eighties.
    Ruth was a Royal Navy Servicewoman who was a Bombe operator and was asked about war time romances at Bletchley Park. The entire cinema audience collapsed when she said “the odds were good but the goods were odd”.
    There is a wonderful interview on YouTube recorded in 1992 “From Code Breaking to Computing: Remembrances of Bletchley Park 50 Years Later”
    where Jack Good, who worked with Turing, and Donald Michie are interview by David Kahn. To quote from the blurb:
    “In this 1992 interview Jack Good and Donald Michie discuss their cryptanalytical work during World War II at Britain’s Bletchley Park. The technical aspects of Germany’s Enigma and Lorenz Geheimschreiber, the code-breaking Bombe, Heath Robinson, and Colossus machines, and the personal contributions of Max Newman, Alan Turing, and Tommy Flowers are explored. Donald Michie, in the final part of the interview, offers some details on the origins of artificial intelligence research.”

  15. Dom says:

    Bill Tutte and his reverse engineering of the Lorenz machine configuration just from the ciphertext always deserves a mention I think.
    Bill Tutte Wikipedia

  16. Visitor says:

    “The contrast with the recent Stephen Hawking biopic is striking. ”

    …along with a few other striking contrasts. For example, Hawking is still alive whereas Turing is dead and couldn’t object to anything that the film makers wanted to do. There is no doubt that had Hawking died before the picture about him was made, the contrast between it and the Turing picture would be rather less striking…

    Remember: a story “based on a true story” is false story.

  17. Joe Prokop says:

    This link was posted on a film review website for the Imitation Game,
    It would appear that a joint effort by Polish and French Mathematicians including Unercover activities broke the Enigma Cipher in 1932. Mathematical Techniques developed by Prof. Rejewski and colleagues solved the Cipher. It is interesting how this has never been recognized in the popular accounts about code breaking during WW II.

  18. Chris W. says:

    Michael Shain mentioned Tommy Flowers. See this article, published about a week ago on

    As contemporaries explained in a short film made by Google, once war was over the orders were to smash everything to pieces. According to these testimonials some Colossus machines were even dumped down coal mines. This was extremely galling for the people who had worked hard, for years, creating and nurturing these machines.

    It also pushed back the development of computing. “Tommy Flowers held various master documents in a safe concerned with Colossus and he had been instructed that these were to be destroyed,” described one individual. “And he went down to the workshop and destroyed them. Put them on the fire. That was the end of them.”

  19. dom says:

    The Poles have been given credit for their work in the detailed accounts I have read.

  20. Dom says:

    As a follow-up to my comment about the Poles, here is a timely bit of correspondence in The Guardian Engineers, linguists and other heroes

  21. Peter Shor says:

    @Joe Prokop: As I understand it, the Poles and the French broke the 1932 Enigma cipher and got the techniques to the British. But by 1939, the Germans had changed the Enigma machines and made the cipher harder to break. So Turing and Bletchley Park actually needed to do more than just use the Polish techniques.

  22. R.K. says:

    “not like the Turing of the Hodges book, or like any other mathematically talented person I’ve ever known”

    one could remark that it is usually interesting to see how (male) mathematicians and physicists tend to define ‘themselves’ by certain ‘habits’, certain behavioural traits that they obviously think they somehow learned already during infancy, or even before and not while conformizing each other during the eras of shapening their career. Instead of taking the above dicscussed film, I didn’t see it and will not ever make any attempt to see it, as a starting point to discuss stereotyping of and *among* mathematicians and how these patterns could maybe possibly be overcome in the distant future, one takes the ‘mis-match’ of the film with a possible stereotype as a further proof that ‘it doesn’t show reality’. To remind the reader also of that: art is not about reproducing reality, even if a film or a piece of ‘art’ (I don’t know if I wouldn’t call this film art, but it could be close) is based on real characters or events it is usually judged as a poor endeavour for any artist to merely reproduce ‘reality’ that i.e. the cinema misleadingly often tries to imitate. Instead, such films possibly have to be viewed as documents how society deals with science and/or mathematics and such endeavours can be shallow, but they will always lead to interesting insights, if more on a meta-level (i.e. discussions like these here).

  23. Curious Mayhem says:

    One of the striking things about the real story of Turing is that it is unlikely that he died a suicide. His mother, for one thing, emphatically denied it. It seems that Turing had a penchant for experiments with poisonous chemicals, which is probably what led to that deadly apple bite. See Turing: Pioneer of the information age, by B. Jack Copeland.

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