When real science falls short in Hollywood

When truth and drama battle it out in the scripts of blockbuster films about the lives of scientists, drama often wins

The lights dim and five modest words flash across the theatre screen: ‘Based on a true story.’ But what does this phrase aim to convey? Fact or fiction? The lives of influential scientists are often in Hollywood’s limelight, especially as of late with the release of films such as The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing and The Theory of Everything, a portrait of cosmologist Stephen Hawking. But filmmakers have been producing biopics, or biographical films, about science’s most eminent figures since the 1930s, from The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1936 to Creation, a film about Charles Darwin, in 2009. These movies have the capacity to reach millions, but they tend to dramatise actual events. Do major films about respected researchers help or harm the public’s understanding of science? In this article, EuroScientist explores how the lives of real scientists are portrayed in film in relation to aspects of culture, such as religion and sexuality.

Stereotyping science

The culture surrounding science at the time often dictates which historical scientists filmmakers choose to depict. Today’s ‘nerd aesthetic’ may have influenced filmmakers to tell the story of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, says David Kirby, a professor of science communication studies at the University of Manchester, UK. These two researchers could be considered “two of the most geek-ified scientists out there,” he adds.

However, increasingly scientific accuracy is a concern for film producers. Today, researchers are playing an active role in the making of films about science, says Kirby. Science consultants help filmmakers create more well-rounded characters, instead of two-dimensional personas like the mad, socially-inept or omniscient researcher. In this way, Kirby believes the involvement of scientists in film-making positively influences the public’s understanding of science. But “you still have to tell a dramatic story that’s going to bring people to the theatres,” he argues. And biopics are no exception.

More so than stereotypes, tropes create the dramatic arch seen in most major films. Tropes are recurrent themes in storytelling. For science, a common trope is the scientist struggling against the forces of ignorance. Filmmakers “either choose to depict the scientist, who had this struggle or they will make that struggle the focus of the film – even if it was a minor element in their lives,” says Kirby. Forcing the story of real scientists into this dramatic mold can lead to films that are historically inaccurate. But this is not necessarily a problem. “It’s more important to be authentic to science or a scientist rather than focusing on accuracy,” he adds. While ‘authenticity’ is a tricky concept to pin down, Kirby equates it with ‘plausibility’ for films about science and a ‘fair portrait’ for films about scientists in history.

Science and religion

Cited by some as authentic, though not entirely accurate, is Creation, a 2009 film about Darwin’s lifestyle and relationship with religious belief. “Certain things were invented and changed for that film, but it was authentic to the [religious] struggles Darwin had after the death of his daughter,” says Kirby. But some disagree. “The only thing the Creation film got right were the names of the people,” says John van Wyhe, a senior lecturer in the history of science at the National University of Singapore and the director of Darwin Online. “It’s the most inaccurate and fictitious Darwin film I’ve ever seen.”

This disagreement brings up the question of where the line between bending the truth and pure fiction lies. How many small details can be changed before they culminate in an inauthentic film? And can seemingly minor changes still have a large impact on the public perception of an individual scientist or science in general?

In Creation, for example, instead of tweaking Darwin’s life story, the filmmakers fabricated a clash around religion and evolution between Darwin and his wife and colleagues, says van Wyhe. Creation “imposes our own prejudices and stereotypes onto the Victorians, which does a lot of harm,” he says. In other words, Darwin had no conflict between his faith and science, but when films like Creation make it appear as if he did, it feeds today’s issues with unjustified support from history. The film also takes the line ‘based on a true story’ a step further with the subtitle ‘the true story of Charles Darwin’—a move that’s completely unwarranted, he adds.

Science and sexuality

Other seemingly small, but significant changes pervade The Imitation Game – some of which unfairly portray Turing as an insane and untrustworthy homosexual and scientist, says Luis Rocha, professor of informatics and cognitive science at Indiana University, USA, who is also affiliated with the Gulbenkian Institute of Science in Lisbon, Portugal. For example, Turing named the machine that cracks the Nazi code ‘Bombe.’ But in the film he calls it ‘Christopher’ – named after a childhood friend with whom Turing may have been infatuated. This simple name change implies Turing had an obsessive character, which, in reality, he did not, says Rocha.

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The film also fabricates a meeting between Turing and a Soviet spy at Bletchley Park, where the spy threatens to expose Turing’s homosexuality, if he exposes him as a spy. “The scriptwriters might have thought this would make the film more dramatic, but I think it ends up falling on the cliché of homosexuals as untrustworthy in security situations because of potential blackmail,” says Rocha. “The movie also speaks to a wider problem of scientists being stereotyped as closeted people.” While The Imitation Game is riddled with harmful historical inaccuracies, “overall a film being made about Turing is a good thing,” he adds. “I just hope it leads to more people reading about him and finding out the truth.”

Maybe major films are not the place for a perfectly accurate portrayal of science and scientists, says Kirby. Instead people should seek out other forms of media, like the recent LabLit movement, which is dedicated to the depiction of real laboratory culture in fictional media, or indie art house films. But van Wyhe says he would rather see Hollywood sell their films as the true story of historical figures in science and then live up to that commitment – because, after all, aren’t the accomplishments of these famous researchers interesting enough? In the words of Jules Verne, the influential French science fiction writer, “reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.”

What is your favourite biopic?
Does it matter that biopics focused on the lives of famous scientists make adjustments away from reality to best serve the film’s dramatic needs?

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