The Devastating Stereotype of the Artless Scientist
February 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
This article contains minor spoilers for the plots of The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, The Social Network, and A Beautiful Mind. Also containing these spoilers: history.
Tonight, two remarkably similar films compete to be crowned as the best film of 2014. Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything cover a young, middle class, white, British, Cambridge-educated mathematician as they make groundbreaking claims and discoveries while trying to overcome an obstacle put in their path.
A few weeks ago Graham Moore, the Oscar-nominated (update: Oscar-winning, congratulations to Mr. Moore!) screenwriter for The Imitation Game, wrote a rather excellent article on Medium about the difficulty of portraying brilliant characters fairly. In his article, Mr. Moore talks about the historical importance of Alan Turing’s accomplishments and the stereotypical lense through which genius often gets portrayed. It surprised me when reading his article that until I reached the part about how he hadwritten the film in question, I actually assumed it was a criticism of the film’s treatment of Alan Turing.
I enjoyed The Imitation Game. I thought it was a well written film in many parts and a lot of fun to watch. However, it unsurprisingly doesn’t quite mesh with the historical truth. Though the film depicts Turing as an insufferable genius who doesn’t get along well with his coworkers or commanding officer, Alastair Denniston as a shrewd commander with little imagination, and his colleagues as brilliant but lacking inspiration, historical records suggest that Turing actually got along fine with his colleagues and that Denniston and Hugh Alexander both supported the idea of building machines to solve the Enigma ciphers.
The “genius-as-asshole” stereotype has become the modern day equivalent of the “genius-as-madman” stereotype put forth by films like A Beautiful Mind. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is shown as an asshole with little regard for his closest friends and an obsession over a girl he dated once; again, reality doesn’t actually mirror this, but it makes for a good story.
Biopics are always going to compact and contort history to make it into a compelling 90-minute tale. I don’t actually have a problem with this in and of itself, and like I said, I enjoyed most of these films (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything and have no interest in seeing it).
However, there is something that concerns me much more deeply.