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. “[T]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.