Screenwriter Graham Moore on Writing About Smart People

Posted on March 3, 2015 at 3:59 pm

One of the most touching moments of the 2015 Oscars broadcast was from Graham Moore, a 28-year-old screenwriter who won the Best Adapted Screenplay award for “The Imitation Game,” based on mathematician Alan Turing’s word to solve the Enigma code during WWII.

Moore, the author of a captivating Sherlock Holmes/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mystery The Sherlockian, wrote a thoughtful piece called “How to Write About Characters Who Are Smarter than You,” about the challenges and pleasures of writing about characters who have extraordinarily powerful intellects. He said he hates it when movies show scientists talking in jargon only to have the “ordinary guy” say something like, “Whoa, Doc, say that in English!”

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve seen this moment on screen, you’ve seen it on TV, you’ve read it in novels. I find this moment to be extremely condescending to its audience. The moment essentially signals to the viewer that all of that mumbo-jumbo that this smarty pants has been blathering on about, well, we filmmakers do not understand a word of it. Moreover, we don’t care to. And we have no interest in your understanding it either.

It’s a moment of casually cynical anti-intellectualism. It’s a joke predicated on the idea that only some geeky sex-less egghead would ever bother to care about what some dotty scientist says. The moment treats neither its characters nor its audience with respect.

I would suggest that the reason moments like this keep popping up on screens small and large is quite simply that writing about an exceptionally brilliant character is terribly difficult. There is a tendency to blow off a character’s brilliance, in moments like the one I’ve described, rather than confront her genius head on. Because the latter approach is just so infernally difficult.

Moore made the wise decision to take a different approach. “rying to convey his intelligence on screen was a democratizing act. That opening his one-of-a-kind mind up on screen was about letting other people in; not about shutting them out. That genius is conveyed by sharing intelligence, not by hoarding it. We’re all in this smart business together, in a sense.

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MVPs of the Month: Scientists and Nerds

Posted on November 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Copyright 2014 BBC
Alan Turing, Copyright 2014 BBC
Stephen Hawking, copyright 2014 The Guardian
Stephen Hawking, copyright 2014 The Guardian

November 2014 may just be the greatest month in film history for the portrayal of heroes and heroines whose achievements are not about athletics or fights but about equations and science. Last week we had two blockbuster hits featuring fictional scientists. In Disney’s animated “Big Hero 6,” a group of young robotics whizzes (and one amiable slacker) save the day with their inventions. And in “Interstellar,” despite a society that has explicitly rejected science and technology as a way to solve problems, a small group of brilliant scientists use their skills to try to find another planet for humanity to inhabit.  To hear a physicist on the science behind the film, take a look at “Cosmos” host Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s explanation.

The physics advisor on “Interstellar” was Kip Thorne, who is portrayed on screen by Enzo Cilenti, a colleague of Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our generation, “The Theory of Everything.” For more information, see Stephen Hawking’s Universe.

And coming up soon, we have the story of the man Winston Churchill said did more than anyone else to make it possible for the Allies to win WWII, the brilliant Alan Turing, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game.”  Turing was one of a group of mathematicians and cryptologists brought in to decipher the Enigma Code, widely considered to be unbreakable.  Even though we know how it came out, the story is gripping.

Turing knew something about secrets.  He was gay.  At that time, gay men could be imprisoned — or ordered to undergo chemical castration via hormones.  And the movie also portrays the difficulties faced by the women codebreakers.  For more on this story, see Breaking The Codes.

It’s great to see heroes in popular culture who accomplish their goals by being smart and persistent.  Maybe sometime the #breaktheinternet hashtag will be assigned to the scientists who landed a probe on an asteroid instead of pictures of kittens and naked celebrities.   Meanwhile, this month, we also have “Dumb and Dumber To.”

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