Truth and Illusion and the Movies

Sunday, January 11, 2015
I saw The Imitation Game this week which was, as promised, fabulous. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley give outstanding performances, as does the rest of the cast. I laughed and cried. I even thought about some of the issues the movie raised.

Since the Golden Globes are tonight, I decided to see if the movie actually had a chance of winning Best Drama or Benedict Cumberbatch, Best Actor. I’d like to see them win. I haven’t seen the other contenders, though, so wanted to see how the competition was rated. Which led me to reading the user reviews of The Imitation Game.

Several of the reviewers didn’t seem to understand this was a drama, not a documentary. They downgraded the movie based on issues such as the Poles not being credited for their part in decoding Enigma, the team not being given enough credit, and Turing’s openness about his homosexuality being downplayed. There is also a faction that believes he didn’t commit suicide, but hints at nefarious plots to kill him. They didn’t evaluate the film as a movie, a story that gets at the essence of what happened, if not the literal truth.

Movies and books and other forms of art often do this in order to tell the story. There’s even a term for it: dramatic or poetic license. It’s understood that the true facts may be shaded in order to make a better story. I’m pretty sure if the film had been made as a documentary, it would be seen by far fewer people. It would never be talked about the way this film has been and, although it might have been nominated for a Golden Globe or Academy Award, it would have been in an obscure documentary category.

It’s not as if every other biopic made adheres to the literal truth. (That’s sarcasm, in case you missed it.) Most biopics eliminate unsavory aspects of the subject’s life, unless they’re capitalizing on those, in which case they omit the other side. I’ve seen biopics that omit mention of a second (or first) wife or children. It’s inevitable. A movie is only two hours long, hardly long enough to capture every detail accurately. As an example, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the book on which The Imitation Game was based, is 792 pages long. If you want the details or the literal truth, read the book. Even I am hesitating at buying it, much as I like long books, because I already have two very long ones on my current To Read list.

I loved Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp, which was the story of J.M. Barrie. Kind of. While hunting for a biography of the creator of Peter Pan to read, I discovered that Finding Neverland adhered to the truth of J.M. Barrie’s life even less than The Imitation Game does to Turing’s. Which still does not diminish my enjoyment of the story told in the movie.

Novels are similar. I put a disclaimer at the end of Shadow of Death because there’s one scene that could not have happened exactly as I portrayed it. I knew it couldn’t, but, after contemplating the issue over several weeks, decided writing a scene with what literally would have happened would have bored the reader to tears, and they probably would have closed the book at that point. So I salved my conscience by putting in the disclaimer.

Law enforcement officials generally hate crime shows and novels because they don’t portray reality. Don’t ask anyone in law enforcement about the CSI shows unless you want an earful of angry invective. Writers get details about guns and investigative procedures wrong all the time. Lee Lofland, a retired police officer, has written a book to help them get the facts right and writes a blog on police topics for writers. He does a weekly review of each episode of Castle as well.

The people who watch these shows and read these books, for the most part, don’t care about technical accuracy. They’re looking for a good story. And, even if the writer is well aware that a CSI would not be questioning witnesses or when a warrant is or isn’t required, the writer may decide, for the sake of the story, to include that “inaccuracy.” Because the truth they’re telling isn’t about procedure or history or a specific event, but what it means to people.

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