And yet there are those who would like to see the author held to the same standards as the historian, with all anachronisms ironed out, twisted truths unknotted and every facet of the facts bolted into place. Anything else is a failure, a disrespect to the source material.
The imitation game was no exception to the criticism. While it was largely hailed as excellent upon release in 2014, there was still the usual voices decrying the falsehoods in the movie. That Alan Turing was actually quite sociable. The true name of the Enigma machine was not Christopher but Victory. That the project was not a small crack team of geniuses working on a single machine, but that the Enigma project involved thousands of people, multiple machines and Alan Turing stepped in midway through the project. That the chemical castration didn't directly result in Turing’s suicide, that he was off the stuff 14 months before he died, and even then it's not entirely clear if he committed suicide.
Now, I am not at all saying that the people who point out these inconsistencies are wrong, or that they should simply enjoy the story for what it is. Certainly, all due diligence should be made in the research phase of the story, and to respect the facts. And I'm definitely not saying that historical fiction, as a source of entertainment, has no duty to inform. It certainly does, and those people who point out the inaccuracies help to push us all to a higher standard.
But there has to be a reasonable limit on just how much a storyteller can be expected to follow the facts. The reason is twofold. Firstly, to be blunt, a storyteller’s job is to tell a story. A story’s job is to entertain, and anything learned from it is a happy bonus. Why don't we hold historians to the same standard? That they must present their facts in a pleasing and readable narrative? Sure, some historians are gifted storytellers with a knack for making a potentially dry history lesson of the past a joy, but the difference between the two is stark. We happily forgive history books if they are as dull and readable as a dictionary - indeed, we praise history books as this as being the real deal, the pedigree authority on our history - and yet if a historical fiction gives a character a fabric type that isn't invented for the next 73 years, or the villain a gun that what never been made available outside of South America, then you can bet that the author’s going to hear from some very unhappy people. We should be more sympathetic to the author who has clearly at least tried. Tried harder than the historian who can’t (and won't) make their work more digestible.
Secondly, as the storyteller, the author is well versed in - and has a duty to - make the story work. Let's face it, despite there being many strange and wonderful true stories of drama, terror, excitement and wonder in the world, very few of them would translate perfectly into a story. Stories and real life have similarities, yes, but the differences are key to understanding why storytellers make the changes they do. Stories have to hit certain emotional beats. Have clear beginnings and endings. Keep a certain level of tension and pacing. Have an antagonistic force for the main character to play off of. Simply put, real life does not have an audience to keep in rapt attention. A story does, and when retelling a true story certain adjustments and sacrifices have to be made to keep the audience engaged.
Let's look at the differences between the fact and fiction of the imitation game again. In the movie, Alan Turing basically has Asperger’s. He may not have been like that in real life (though he was indeed a private person), but can you imagine the story if the Enigma crew got on perfectly well from the outset? It would seem too easy, and Alan wouldn't have the scope to develop as a character. Now again, you can argue that character development of Alan isn't true to the real man, but this is what engages an audience. A protagonist who stays the same throughout does not a satisfying narrative make. Same with the naming of the machine: naming it after Alan’s childhood friend gives it that extra emotional oomph that has a great payoff towards the end of the movie.
His death is probably the most contentious discrepancy, and I can understand why. It is argued that Alan Turing’s time on chemical castration wasn’t that bad for him, and his death was a separate issue with an unclear cause. To be blunt, if this had played out in the movie it would have been an anticlimactic mess. Imagine it: after completion of the Enigma machine, Alan Turing is arrested for homosexual acts. He's put on a program of corrective medicine that doesn't impact him that badly, then he dies of an indirect cause later. Credits roll.
It wouldn't work. Stories require payoff, closure. You can see the thinking of the creators when they were deciding how to get the right impact without sacrificing the integrity of the story. Clearly a happy ending would be disastrous: Alan Turing's story could only ever end in tragedy. Having Turing’s story (not life, but story) end on a clear suicide as a direct result of the chemical castration gives the story clear closure, deals an emotional blow to the audience, and puts one of the core themes of the story (and of Alan Turing’s real life) into sharp relief: homosexuality.
Of course it can be done badly. There's countless examples out there of poorly researched historical fiction that plays fast and loose with the facts. The key thing here is respect for the source material. In my opinion the imitation game is not just a good story but also good historical fiction, because it manages to tell a story while staying true to the spirit of Alan Turing’s life and work. The facts can be respected without being mimicked. The alterations don’t compromise the integrity of the truth: in many respects, the alterations can enhance and bring focus to the points that matter. While it may have been true the Enigma project was the work of a much larger group of men and women, showing the group as being a much smaller, concentrated effort brings the attention squarely onto Turing.
And let’s be clear here: tweaking the facts to make digestible, audience-friendly historical fiction is by no means selling out. Good historical fiction leaves the audience in one of two mindsets: feeling intrigued enough to go off and learn more, or they never look up anything further on the topic but the movie leaves them with an impression more or less aligned with the historians (ie. that Turing was a genius, unfairly persecuted for his sexuality, and taken before his time). In the case of the former, this is wonderful because it piques the interest and drives the viewer or reader to investigate and read up on the real deal. This is easier than it has ever been thanks to everyone having immediate access to the knowledge of the world through a device in our pockets. In the case of the latter, it is also good news because you have a casual viewer who would have otherwise been uninformed yet thanks to a movie or book now possess a sketch of the facts without being grossly uninformed. Either way, historical fiction brings important benefits to opening the eyes of an audience to the work of a person, a time in history, a tragedy or great battle that they would have otherwise never known about.
Historical Fiction faces unique challenges in striking a balance between telling an impactful story while respecting the facts. While every effort should be made to present the truth, it must be understood that it’s main purpose is to tell a story. Done well, historical fiction can be an effective primer for the masses, and a gateway to encourage looking into the real deal. And I have learned a lot about Alan Turing since watching ‘The Imitation Game’!