Mathematicians may have the tired stereotype of being a bunch of geeks scribbling formulas on a chalkboard, but that could not be further from the truth. In real life, math and its practitioners have been responsible for some of the most important breakthroughs in human history, while in faction they have been the subject of some riveting stories.
Here is a selection of some of the best movies based on mathematics.\
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Forget best math movies … Good Will Hunting will feature high on many people’s favorite films of any genre. The story centers around Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) – a mathematics genius but troubled young man working as a janitor at MIT. His gifts soon get discovered by an acclaimed MIT math professor, who bails Hunting out of prison on the understanding he will help him solve complex math equations. While Hunting finds math easy, it is the rest of his life that proves more challenging – including his anger, childhood trauma, and resistance to vulnerability. With the help of therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), love interest Skylar (Minnie Driver) and best friend Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), Hunting gradually finds the peace and direction he has always yearned for.
Good Will Hunting proved an enormous success, making over $225 million in the box office (from an initial budget of $10m) while earning rave reviews from the critics. It was also duly recognized in award season and won two Academy Awards – Williams for Best Supporting Actor and for Best Original Screenplay, thus launching the career of Damon and Affleck as Hollywood stars.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Another math-based movie that won big at the box office and at the Oscars, but this time based on a true story. A Beautiful Mind is a biographical movie based on American mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe. Nash was a Nobel Laureate in Economics who made vital contributions to game theory and differential geometry – and he did so while developing paranoid schizophrenia.
The film, directed by Ron Howard, is stunningly shot to provide viewers a snapshot into the inner workings of a truly unique and complex mind as it balances mathematical brilliance with a debilitating mental disease. It was the biggest movie of 2001, raked in more than $313m at the box office and won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (for Jennifer Connelly, who plays Nash’s wife Alicia Nash). It was adapted from a book of the same name, written by Sylvia Nasar.
The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)
Sometimes a story comes along so incredible that it can only be true. That is the case with The Man Who Knew Infinity, the biographical drama based on the life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Ramanujan grew up poor in India and gained admittance to Cambridge University where he worked with famed math professor G.H Hardy and together they became pioneers in mathematical theories. Set during the onset of the First World War, The Man Who Knew Infinity stars Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as Hardy, and is a reminder that genius, talent, and huge contributions to humanity can come from any source.
For the readers among you, the movie is based on the book of the same name and is written by Robert Kanigel.
Based on the acclaimed book ‘Bringing Down The House’, 21 focuses on the real-life MIT Blackjack Team – a group of brilliant mathematics students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and other major colleges that was assembled to master blackjack card counting and other strategies to defeat casinos in the United States and worldwide.
21 takes plenty of artistic license from the true events and much of the plot is fictionalized but it nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into the workings of the real team. Some of the original Blackjack Team even make cameo appearances throughout the movie. Starring Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, and Kate Bosworth, 21 is a slick, fast-paced film that takes on more of a thriller heist tone instead of just being about mathematics. After watching the movie, consider reading ‘Bringing Down The House’ to get the full picture.
The Imitation Game (2015)
For an example of how mathematics can change the course of history, look no further than the story at the center of The Imitation Game. Alan Turing was a British cryptanalyst who successfully decrypted German intelligence messages for the British government during the Second World War.
This small portion of Turing’s remarkable life and career is the focus of The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. The film earned critical acclaim and massive commercial success, accumulating around $233 million worldwide. It was also nominated for eight Academy Awards, collecting the statue for Best Adapted Screenplay.