Alan Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch, Graham Moore, Homosexuality, Morton Tyldum, Oscars, The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game received a number of Oscar nominations this year, most notably Best Picture, Best Director (Morton Tyldum), Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore). The only one it won was Best Adapted Screenplay, being based on Alan Turing: The Enigma (Burnett, 1983) by British mathematician Andrew Hodges. As my friend Abe commented, it “won the Oscar that it was important that ‘The Imitation Game’ not win.” I agree whole-heartedly. I would have been quite happy to see either Cumberbatch or Knightley win for their performances, and I could certainly have been ok with it winning Best Picture or Best Director, although I’m not sure it really deserved either of those honors. But it certainly was not the Best Adapted Screenplay, unless the Academy really thinks of that honor as ‘Best Screenplay that happens to have been loosely Adapted from a Book”.
I’ve already commented on the film’s numerous factual errors, so I won’t rehash them here. Instead, I’ll focus on other issues. It’s hard to think that the people who voted on this Oscar had actually read the book, because if they had, they would have realized that Moore has mis-used Hodges’ metaphor of the Imitation Game. The Imitation Game, which is more commonly called the Turing Test, was a test Turing proposed in which an observer would be given responses to his questions from a human being and a computer without knowing which response came from the human. The computer would be deemed to pass the test if the human was unable to distinguish the computer’s answers from the humans; the computer would win by sufficiently imitating a human.
In Hodges’ book, the Imitation Game serves as a metaphor for Turing’s attempt to present himself as a heterosexual. For example, his engagement to Joan Clarke was an effort to look heterosexual rather than being driven by genuine heterosexual attractions. But in Moore’s screenplay, the Imitation Game is Turing’s attempt to present himself as a normal human being instead of the weird, semi-autistic figure Moore paints him as. So in the process of adapting Hodges’ book, Moore has purposefully recycled one of Hodges’ observations and made it a central conceit for something entirely different. The very title of the film is a sign that Moore was mis-adapting the book.
The Film’s Sexual Politics
The movie has presented itself as a call for justice for gay men who, like Turing, were convicted under British sodomy laws. It ends with an epilogue text that tells us that 49,000 men were convicted under the same law that ruined Turing’s life. Cumberbatch has spoken, quite genuinely I think, about the importance of pardoning those men, and the film has helped revive a debate about these convictions.
It’s definitely important that the film has helped boost this conversation, and I’m glad that Cumberbatch has used this moment to champion the issue. But the film itself is being rather disingenuous about gay rights. While it is presenting itself as a pro-gay film, it goes out of its way to minimize Turing’s homosexuality and to recast him in a more heterosexual light. It dramatically emphasizes Turing’s brief engagement to Joan Clarke and sharply minimizes Turing’s actual homosexual relationships. The adult Turing admits to being homosexual but is never actually shown being sexual with another man, or indeed even being in the same room as another homosexual; the only homosexual gesture we see Turing make as a teen is to pen a brief love-note to another boy at school. The film claims that Turing’s homosexuality was only discovered when he began being investigated for espionage when in fact Turing flat-out admitted his homosexuality to the police. So what the film has done is admit that Turing was homosexual and then systematically shy away from virtually everything about his homosexuality while playing up a very brief heterosexual relationship.
Both Cumberbatch and Tyldum have responded to complaints about this by saying that the film didn’t needs any gay sex scenes. That’s entirely true but also entirely irrelevant; it’s like saying a movie about the Holocaust doesn’t need any Jewish sex scenes. (In fairness, Cumberbatch’s statement was a response to a question about gay sex scenes posed by a reporter.) A film about a gay man does not have to show him having sex with a man in order to show him being gay. But it does, I think, have to show him being gay in some fashion; simply having the main character say “I’m a homosexual” once or twice is dodging the issue. And I suspect that the movie doesn’t think its audience is entirely comfortable with seeing homosexuality on the screen so it has adopted a genteel Victorian work-around; it admits Turing is homosexual without ever having to show it. In doing so, Moore violates one of the most important rules of script-writing; show, don’t tell.
Given that the last third of the film centers around Turing’s homosexuality, refusing to actually show it seems to me a massive omission and in some ways a re-enacting of the closet that Turing lived his life in. To then turn around and include a post-script decrying the persecution of closeted men is a serious problem.
Had Moore wanted to, he could easily have explored the way Turing lived in the closet. He could have addressed why Turing proposed to Clarke and whether Turing was attempting to use her as a ‘beard’. He could have shown Turing’s surprise when he encountered less-closeted gay men at American universities. He could have considered the way that the closet pushed Turing to begin a relationship with a 19-year-old unemployed man that he must have had little in common with apart from their illicit sexual desires. The film could have demonstrated Turing’s courage in refusing to let his lover victimize and blackmail him. It could have examined the way his brother John reviled him for being “disgusting and disreputable” or his mother Ethel’s choice to stand by him. Moore could have shown the fact that some of Turing’s colleagues at Bletchley Park risked their own reputations by testifying on his behalf at the trial. In other words, if the film had actually wanted to make a stand for gay rights, there were a lot of ways it could have done so. None of this would have required a gay sex scene. But instead, Moore invents a crisis in which Turing is blackmailed by a fellow Bletchley Park staffer for being gay and shows him lacking the courage to admit his homosexuality; this is both false (he wasn’t blackmailed at Bletchley Park) and the opposite of what happened later (he refused to allow his lover to blackmail him).
I think the real problem here is that presumably neither Moore nor Tyldum is gay (Moore has publicly said he’s not gay, and Tyldum is married to a woman). So we have two apparently straight men trying to tell a story about a gay man, and they unsurprisingly fail to appreciate the complexities of being a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. I’m not saying that only gay men can write about gay men, but these two straight men seem to have failed to appreciate what the closet is like. Rather than recognizing Turing’s proposal to Clarke as being about his status as a closeted gay man, they’ve re-interpreted it as an attempt to keep Clarke at Bletchley Park. They’ve actively directed the audience’s attention away from the issue of the closet and toward a narrative straight viewers will be more familiar and comfortable with.
For all these reasons, I think that Moore’s script is a poor adaptation of Hodges’ book, not to mention Turing’s life. The performances are solid and the film has other qualities to recommend it, but the Oscar it won was probably the one it is least deserving of.
Postscript: If you want to read a little more about my thoughts on this movie, you can see my post on a different blog about the Best Movies of 2014. A number of other bloggers contributed to the same post, so you’ll have to scroll down for mine.