PARENTAL ADVISORY: The following blog is rated 18 for strong language, imagery, and a discussion that’s probably not going to interest anyone much under 17. Seriously, if you’re even the slightest bit squeamish and haven’t seen David Cronenberg’s The Fly, read on with care.
Forget your Harry Potters and your Twilights, they’re old news. The latest tweenage sensation, the young adult novel The Hunger Games, will be unleashed on us all in just a week. Well, strictly speaking, 99.92% of The Hunger Games will be released on the UK in just a week, for the distributor has taken the decision to take out seven seconds to receive a 12A rating instead of a 15. This isn’t the first time that this has happened this year, with The Woman In Black similarly cut for its release last month, this time losing six seconds of its run time. Should we care that we’re losing an amount of time that isn’t really practical enough to do anything with?
Firstly, it’s maybe a sign of a slow news month that cutting thirteen seconds out of two films is actually classed as news. The proportion of films actually being cut in the UK is actually at the lowest it’s ever been since the British Board Of Film Classification first started rating films in big numbers; it’s a job they’ve been doing in the UK ever since the outbreak of the First World War. Allow me to demonstrate with a trademark graph.
There’s been an uplift in the last thirty years in the number of films being submitted, but in that time there’s also been a decrease in the number being cut. The main change in that time was the revamp of the film classification system in this country; out went the old system of U, A, AA and X came in its place the U, PG, 15 and 18. (To put that in context, the old system would have been the broad equivalent of U, PG, 14 and 18.) There have been two other significant changes over the last thirty years: in 1989, the introduction of a 12 rating, which extended to videos in 1994, and then the change of that rating to 12A in 2002.
It’s clear to see why a 12A rating is appealing to both the BBFC and to film companies – the old A rating was designed for children from 5 to 14 to be accompanied by an adult, and there’s a long gap between what you’re watching at the age of 5 and what becomes acceptable when you’re into your teens. I have to be clear that I have a personal grudge against the 12 / 12A rating and in particular the time at which it was introduced: Titanic would have had to be saddled with a 15 prior to 1989, but eight years later it picked up a 12 rating. Apparently it’s perfectly acceptable now to show Kate Winslet’s boob to 12 year olds, but it wouldn’t have been when I was 12.
But the 12A rating has to be all encompassing and attempts to weed out a multitude of sins. Take for example the film Marmaduke, which was initially hit with a 12A rating in the UK, but was later revised to a U once the makers removed the word ‘spaz’. Even a single use of ‘moron’ or ‘retard’ is also deemed as offensive as a single application of the word ‘fuck’, as any of the above will mean that your Mum / Dad / rented homeless person need to accompany you to your local multiplex. At the other end of the spectrum, the 12A is weeding out mild horror and violence, so everything from the pencil trick of The Dark Knight to children being hanged at the start of a Pirates Of The Caribbean movie manages to get into the 12A rating.
So there’s three groups of people with a vested interest in the 12A rating, and the first of those is the film companies themselves. Let’s not forget that the BBFC was set up by film companies themselves, and while the BBFC have done a fantastic job of remaining independent, the 12A rating is designed to get as many people as possible into cinemas. This possibly has a knock on effect on the second group of people: the under 12s themselves. At 15 or 18, the BBFC is taking a conscious decision to restrict part of the audience from entering the film, but at the 12A category that decision is left to the parents / guardians / homeless people. Unless they’ve got an encyclopaedic knowledge of film, or have actually viewed the film in question themselves first, then there’s no hope of them being able to make consistently accurate judgements on whether or not to take in children. I’ve spoken to one parent recently who took their own children into The Woman In Black, and somewhat fairly hadn’t picked up from the advertising material quite how intense the material is, consequently having to take the children out again before the end.
What the 12A rating does is to imply that, almost like the A rating of old, anyone under that age is a suitable candidate if their accompanying grown-ups feel it’s appropriate. Don’t get me wrong, everyone matures at a different age, and my own mother felt that I was grown up enough to be allowed to watch a dodgy pirate video loaned to us from a family in the next street. The film in question was David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which was indicated by The Fly (18) scrawled in felt tip pen onto the sticky label on the side of the VHS tape. All seemed to be going well until, about twenty minutes in, Seth Brundle attempts to test his teleportation pods on a live animal. Even at the age of 12, going on 13, I was film savvy enough to realise that so early into the film it was unlikely that things had gone swimmingly. Then the film absolutely justified that 18 rating. (Those not of a strong stomach – look away NOW.)
At that point, the video had to be turned off while I recovered from the shock, but a day or so later, I’d recovered my composure, and after some further screening by my dedicated mother, she felt I could cope to the end. She was right, and The Fly is not only my favourite Cronenberg film, but still one of my all time favourite movies to this day. (I STILL can’t watch that bit, though.) Before the age of 15, I’d been allowed to watch a whole range of other 18 films at home, including Robocop and Die Hard, and the quality of the films themselves makes me glad that I had a responsible parent who was willing to push a few boundaries to help get me started on a decent film education.
Not every parent is as well meaning, and again any rating system has to take into account not only the range of films but also the range of parental responses. I sat through all three Lord Of The Rings films in the cinema with a child bawling their eyes out thanks to a parent who couldn’t afford (or who couldn’t be bothered with) a babysitter and had brought a child far too young in. (It almost makes me want to rent a child from the neighbourhood, with parent, to bawl their eyes out whenever I watch the DVD.) The third and final group of people that the rating needs to service is the rest of the audience, and if the rating is letting in children who can’t cope with what they’re seeing, for whatever reason, that will actually deter anyone above the age range from returning to such films.
Which brings me back to The Hunger Games, and whether seven seconds is going to make much difference. First off, it’s fairly clear from the nature of the rating that seven seconds is the absolute minimum that needed to be taken out to secure the 12A rating, thus allowing mewling babes in arms and irate toddlers to be freely admitted. But my astonishing mathematical pedantry worked out (and yes, I did grab a calculator and worked it out) that we’d lost 0.08% of a film, but it’s a 0.08% that’s potentially crucial in terms of context. Take another one of those 18 films I mentioned earlier, Robocop. The film appeared on DVD with footage that was originally taken out, as it was in America, to secure the 18 rating here and the R in the US.
Here’s the sequence with the death of Mr Kenny, firstly in the original version that appears. (Apologies for the slightly poor video quality.)
Now here’s a key part of that same scene but as it appeared in the extended cut.
See the difference? That extra few seconds turned a violent scene with an urgent plea for assistance at the end into a blackly comic, over the top moment with an almost ridiculous request for a paramedic, driven more so by a desperation for self-preservation than any concern for the unfortunate Mr Kenny. That few seconds, and a little context, can make all the difference.
But maybe the reason that cuts in the likes of The Hunger Games, and indeed The Woman In Black, are as much to do with the rarity of those cuts as anything else. Film studios have become very adept at pitching their films into the right rating; how often we’re actually getting to see the original artistic vision of the director is anyone’s guess. But it’s clear in the case of The Hunger Games that the studio wants to get as many people as possible, but the 12A rating still send out the same message as that A rating of old: it’s OK for children of any reasonable any age to attend, as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. That’s missing the point of the rating, it’s potentially setting up an unfair expectation for the child and possibly also then causing problems for the rest of the audience.
I wish I could say that there was an alternative in operation somewhere in the world that we could turn to, but the UK already has one of the strictest sets of governance anywhere in the world. Compare this to the American system, for example: there the corresponding category is PG-13, requiring adult accompaniment for another year, but the next category up, R, also allows anyone 17 and under to attend if accompanied by an adult. The direct equivalent of our 18 rating, NC-17, is handed out in only the rarest of cases; only two films got an NC-17 in the US last year, meaning that adult accompaniment would get you into everything else. In the UK, 239 of the 710 films released last year got a 15 rating and a further 56 the full 18 rating. Some countries don’t even put the full restriction on at 18, with some going for as low as 16 or even 15 for the top rating, and often ratings being advisory rather than a hard and fast rule.
Now don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said I was being allowed to watch 18 films at home from the age of 12, but it was always with a parent present and always in a controlled environment. Unless you’re very mature for your age or have a hypnotically good fake ID, you’re not going to be shaving more than a year or two off the 15 and 18 ratings in this country, but these are covering material much more suitable for that age range in a cinema, and therein lies the crucial difference. While it’s my raison d’être to encourage you into the cinema, there need to be boundaries, and the ones currently laid out in the cinema in the UK on the middle of our ratings just don’t serve anyone the way they should.
So what do we do? Consider who the book of The Hunger Games is aimed at. If you look up definitions of young adult, then you’ll see a random collection of definitions, from 10 to 20 through 14 to 21; the American Literary Association gives a range of 12 to 18. There would seem to be some clear boundaries there, so how about a rating system for the cinema of U, PG, 10, 14 and 18? The gap between the top two would be a return to the same categorisation of the previous system of AA and X, which were effectively 14 and 18. Really the 12A rating should be allowing accompanied children of 10 and 11, not the full range in, so for everyone’s benefit restrict that rating to 10 and upwards, and then the likes of The Woman In Black and The Hunger Games can still capture a decent audience at 14, but they can be enjoyed in the manner originally intended by their creators.
For now though, we still have the 12A rating. For any parents reading, I’d suggest making sure you pay particular care and attention when looking at the 12A rating to the content: if your child is anything younger than 12, think about whether you really want them seeing the film in the cinema, or whether you’d prefer to do it in the controlled environment of home. For film studios, maybe on odd occasions a second cut of the film with everything in could be an option: some cinemas have already had adult only screenings to keep the kids at bay, but maybe now the time has come for us actual grown-ups to get the full film.