Comment: Hollywood should stay true to the real story of Alan Turing

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Writing for, Harriet Lucas says the decision of producers of the upcoming Alan Turing biopic to change aspects of the gay scientist’s life for the benefit of the movie is a betrayal of his legacy.

Alan Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, last month criticised the script of the forthcoming biopic The Imitation Game. The film focuses on the relationship Turing had with fellow Bletchley Park codebreaker, Joan Clarke, who is to be played by Keira Knightley. Turing and Clarke were briefly engaged until Turing came out to Clarke and said that he could not live a lie by marrying her. It is ridiculous to completely transform a short-lived engagement based on convenience into a Hollywood love story. Joan Clarke was no leading lady in Turing’s life; for Turing, Bletchley was a “sexual desert”.

The film also makes more of Turing’s marathon running to make him appear less “wimpish”. A man who indirectly saved thousands of lives through his breaking of the German Enigma code, suffered the public humiliation of chemical castration and police surveillance, and finally committed suicide, is not indicative of a “wimpish” man. Even if Turing had been wimpish, why should this be a problem to the film-makers? Why is it the case that, for a film to be palatable to a Western audience, the protagonist has to be not only heterosexual but also conforming to traditional gender roles? This is an antiquated model of heroism and one that we would have thought had been left behind after Hollywood successes such as Brokeback Mountain, Milk, Philadelphia, A Single Man, and Behind the Candelabra. To the makers of the film: clearly Western audiences can handle it, so stop treating us as if we can’t stomach the truth about Turing’s life.

The film’s makers claimed that they were taking “creative liberties” in response to Hodges’ criticisms. With such a story as Turing’s, the makers ought to take responsibility for representing Turing as he was, if they are allowed the privilege of making money in his name. It is simply not good enough to argue that, since it is a “drama”, the real Turing can be erased. Turing’s story is inherently political, and it is naïve to assert that “it’s only a drama so what does it matter?” This suggests that, not only have we not learned the lessons of Turing’s suicide, but we are actually taking retrograde steps.

It is a stain on his memory that we continue to betray a man who did so much for his country. Turing has still not been pardoned by the British Government, even though posthumous pardons are not unprecedented. This would be an important step towards making amends. Gordon Brown and GCHQ did apologise for the treatment Turing suffered; we can apologise for the past, but this has become a question of needing to apologise for the present. There have been enormous advances in terms of LGBT rights and treatment in the past sixty years, so why is there a blind spot when it comes to Turing?

Turing’s life had and continues to have a tension between the public and the private, the secret and the unconcealed. Turing’s work on the German Enigma code was shut up for thirty years after the war, and he carried out secret work for GCHQ until he was deemed a security risk because of his homosexuality. On the other hand, Turing was never secretive about his sexuality from the time he was studying at King’s College, Cambridge. When he was arrested for gross indecency, he said that he saw no wrong in his actions. By ignoring Turing’s sexuality, the film attributes a shame to him that he did not have. We owe it to Turing to keep him out of the closet, and not to push him back in.