a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Imitation Game (2014)
Morten Tyldum (director) / Graham Moore (screenplay)

This film about Alan Turing and his role in breaking the Nazi enigma code has been a critical and financial success. It has won numerous awards and brought huge crowds of people to see a movie about a mathematician, at least in part due to the star power of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. It is sometimes said that the film was based on Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma, but due to the huge number of factual inaccuracies in the film which cannot be blamed on that non-fiction book, I prefer the weaker claim that it was inspired by the book.

Although I have to admit that the movie was a well-made piece of cinema, I am disappointed with the extent to which it "watered down" the mathematics and its use (or even abuse) of stereotypes. What I've heard about Alan Turing from other sources never gave me the idea that he was so far out on the "autism spectrum" that he would not be able to understand jokes or participate in normal conversation. In this film, for instance, he does not understand that when his co-workers say they are going to get lunch that they are inviting him to go along. On the contrary, I was under the impression that he was personable, humorous and had close friendships. True, he famously got very upset when people at Bletchley used his mug without permission, but that does not seem all that weird to me. And, of course, he was a homosexual man in a time when that was considered a serious crime, which would also have contributed to the perception that he was somewhat anti-social even if he was not actually as emotionless and humorless as The Imitation Game would have you believe. Artistically, I suppose it is useful to have him be so robotic that his own thought processes seem as alien to the people around him as do the thoughts of the artificial intelligences he liked to imagine. As is often the case in works of mathematical fiction, there is a clear implication not only that the character happens to be both strange and talented at mathematics, but more specifically that the latter is somehow a consequence of the former. Near the end of the film, Joan says to Alan that she's glad he isn't normal because a normal person could never have done what he did. I consider this a misrepresentation, not only because I suspect the real Alan Turing was a lot more normal than his portrayal here, but moreover because there are many very brilliant mathematicians who are as normal as anyone else.

Among mathematicians, reactions to this film have been mixed. Some are bothered by historical inaccuracies. (For instance, Turing was not responsible for making tactical decisions based on the decrypted messages. Also, the subplots with the spy portrayed by Downton Abbey's Alan Leech and the battle for supremacy at Bletchley Park are fake and apparently added just for the drama.) Others were disturbed by the stereotypical portrayal of the math genius as anti-social and humorless. (There is no denying that Alan Turing struck people as an odd man, not necessarily surprising considering that his homosexuality must have made it difficult for him to be completely at ease in such a hostile environment, but he seems to have also been a person with a good sense of humor and many close friends.) Knightley's character mispronounces the name "Euler". Finally, the film downplays some of Turing's important mathematical discoveries while falsely giving him credit for the comparatively lame contribution of thinking to look for common phrases in the coded messages. Yet, while acknowledging all of these problems, some experts also still find things to love in the film.

To get a good sense of the diversity of opinions out there among experts, I recommend that you read The New York Review of Books' scathing criticism, Scott Aaronson's blog entry, this fact-checking article from Slate and this review by mathematical fiction author Cristos Papadimitriou.

And of course, you should see it for yourself and come to your own conclusion. If you do, you should be sure to compare it with Breaking the Code, an earlier attempt to portray Turing's story with less sensationalism and a greater focus on his math research outside of Bletchley.

(By the way, the title is a reference to the Turing Test.)

Contributed by Anonymous

Terrible movie. Libels Turing and Deniston. Ignores mathematics. The dramatic scene with the test of bombe is crazy. (1) Turing (or your average 10th grader) was smart enough to start with a simple test case that would run for two minutes. (2) Turing could have (probably did in fact) calculate the maximum runtime for the trial. (3) the movie failed to mention the other mathematicians (Welchman, Rejewski) who made early contributions to solving enigma. Indeed, Welchman's invention of the diagonal board is attributed to Milner-Barry. Of course, if the movie showed that Deniston was actively recruiting mathematicians, some of the tension between management and the brilliant lone genius might have been lost.

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Works Similar to The Imitation Game
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Enigma by Robert Harris / Tom Stoppard
  2. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
  3. The Fall of Man In Wilmslow by David Lagercrantz
  4. Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore (playwright)
  5. Hidden Figures by Allison Schroeder (writer) / Theodore Melfi (director and writer)
  6. Lovesong of the Electric Bear by Snoo Wilson (playwright)
  7. Sekret Enigmy by Roman Wionczek
  8. The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester
  9. The Auden Test by Lawrence Aronovitch
  10. The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness
Ratings for The Imitation Game:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1.67/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.33/5 (3 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Cool/Heroic Mathematicians, Real Mathematicians, War, Turing,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Logic/Set Theory,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)