In 1997 Good Will Hunting, a fictional movie about the hidden mathematical talents of a MIT janitor grossed $225 million and won a best screenplay Oscar for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. At the time the chair of the Chicago math department told me how much he disliked the movie given the way mathematics and mathematicians were portrayed. I told him the movie made math seem exciting and brought public awareness of the Fields medal, mentioned several times in the movie. You can’t buy that kind of publicity for an academic field.
In 2001 A Beautiful Mind, on the life of John Nash grossed $313 million in the box office and won the best picture Oscar. In 2014 we saw critically acclaimed movies The Imitation Game (8 Oscar nominations with a win for adapted screenplay and $233 million gross) on Alan Turing and The Theory of Everything (5 nominations with a win for best actor, $123 million) on Stephen Hawking. These movies focused more on the struggles of the lead character than the science itself. Though these movies had their flaws they did show to a popular audience that the goal of math and science are worth an incredible struggle.
And complain all you want about the 2005 TV series Numbers, but get your head around the fact that a show about a crime-solving mathematician lasted six seasons. The Big Bang Theory remains the top US television comedy heading into its tenth season this fall.
Which takes us to the recent movie The Man Who Knew Infinity about the life of Ramanujan, a movie that has gotten wide excitement from mathematicians for the portrayal of the math itself, with credit given to consulting mathematician Ken Ono. I haven’t seen the movie as it has barely played in Atlanta. It got critically mixed reviews, grossed only $3.4 million and will probably be forgotten in award season. The Ramanujan story is just not that dramatically interesting.
What’s more important: Getting the math right, or taking some liberties, telling a good story and drawing a large audience. Can you actually do both? Because you can’t inspire people with a movie they don’t see.