We all know about fake news, but only recently I discovered fake quotes. I was asked where Alan Turing’s famous quotation ‘Those who can imagine anything can create the impossible’ had come from. After a lot of digging, the answer was ‘It didn’t.’ Not in his broadcasts. Not in his published papers. Not in his unpublished speeches. Curious….

There are websites which list quotable quotes from famous folk. The Alan Turing quotes include some genuine ones (‘We can see only a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done’, for example, which comes from his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence) but others where no source is cited. Some of those, it seems, are lifted from the script for The Imitation Game, the 2014 movie about Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch (‘I think that sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.’). The movie won one Oscar, for ‘best writing, adapted screenplay’ by Graham Moore. Which makes one assume that whoever goes to the movies assumes that every word uttered by a historical character on screen must have been spoken by them in real life.

Nobody is daft enough to imagine that screenwriters should not adapt stories to make good drama, and The Imitation Game is no exception to the adaptation principle. It’s a shame when movie-goers take the film too literally, but then it is said to be based on Andrew Hodges’s seminal biography Alan Turing – the Enigma, which is another statement not to be taken too literally. One scene in the movie which had puzzled me is the one where a young Alan Turing is pinned beneath the floorboards at his boarding-school and jumped on by his schoolmates. That’s bizarre, in many ways, not least because there is no evidence that Turing was bullied at school, and certainly none in Hodges’s book. Oho, it turns out that this scene is lifted from another book altogether – A Madman dreams of Turing machines, a novel by Janna Levin. So what started as fiction has been recycled as biography.

I suppose where I got lost on this round-trip of quotation and literature is in failing to recognise that writers can imagine anything and thereby create the impossible. A shame Alan Turing never said that….

One comment

  1. I am currently writing an essay on alternate history and your serendipitous conclusion admirably summarises a crucial distinction between writers of fiction utilising historical subject matter for their novels and historiographers who stray too closely to the assumption that they can transmute subjective supposition into fact. I may need to quote you!

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