Thursday, August 21, 2008

The BBFC versus "The Dark Knight"

I happened to be on Jen's blog earlier, and noted her comments on "The Dark Knight", which I saw some weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed. The comment attached to that post questioned why the BBFC considered the film suitable to be seen by children.

The truth is, I hadn't given a moment's thought to the rating assigned to the film. Since I'm 32, and don't have children, I really don't care. In fact, my only interest in the ratings of most films is whether they've been cut to get them. I would much rather see a film uncut than cut, and so don't want to see my films cut down to get a more box-office-friendly rating, thank you so much.

So, I had been completely unaware of the storm that had been brewing over this film. Apparently, the BBFC has rated it 12A, and a whole lot of parents have been complaining that this was unacceptable, since it made it possible for children of any age to see the film, provided they were accompanied by an adult.

(At this point, I'll just note that the 12A certificate came about because most of those same parents wanted to take their children to see "Spiderman", but couldn't because of the 12 certificate. It is ironic that the certificate was changed due to massive complaints, and now there are massive complaints because the change is being applied.)

However, the BBFC got it wrong. This Batman film is a dark, violent and disturbing vision. It may well be a 'comic book movie', but it's no more for kids than the latest "Rambo" film.

Indeed, I sometimes question whether the people at the BBFC even watch films before they slap a certificate on them. Did the "South Park" movie get a lower certificate because, well, "it's just a cartoon"? Did "The Dark Knight" get a pass because "it's just a comic book"?

To say I'm unhappy about this would not be inaccurate, much as saying it rains quite often in Scotland is not inaccurate.

I'm now going to outline how I think film classifications should work. Before, I do that, though, I'll quickly outline the UK and US systems.

In the US, films are rated by the MPAA. Strictly speaking, this process is optional, but none of the big cinema chains will show unrated films, so it is effectively required. You do, however, quite often see unrated versions of films later being made available on DVD, which is quite nice.

In the US, there are five (?) different ratings: G rated films are especially suited for family viewing. PG rated films are slightly more mature, but generally suited for everyone. PG-13 films are the next step up, and typically include "teen comedies". Children aged 12 or under can see these films, but only if accompanied by an adult. Then there are R rated films, which you have to be 18 to see unaccompanied, but which parents can still take children of any age to see. Finally, there is the little-used NC-17 rating. To see such a film you have to be at least 18; parents cannot overrule this certificate for their children. However, the NC-17 rating has become associated with porn, and so is rarely used. Indeed, most cinema chains simply won't show such films, so film companies might as well go unrated.

In the UK, films are rated by the BBFC. Film classifications are mandatory. Furthermore, companies are not allowed to publish different versions of the film at different ratings on DVD, so there is no equivalent of the "unrated" version of the film on DVD. (Where you see "Unseen at the Cinema" DVD versions, these either will exist to the exclusion of the cinema version, or will share the same certificate. And, in any case, you're better off getting the US unrated version if you want to see the 'uncut' film - assuming you have a multi-region DVD player of course.)

In the UK there are also five different ratings: U rated films are suitable for all (equivalent to G). PG rated films are slightly more mature, but generally suited for everyone (PG). 12A films are the next step up, and typically include "teen comedies". Children aged 12 or under can see these films, but only if accompanied by an adult (PG-13).

The system diverges with the next category, the 15. Here, no-one under the age of 15 is allowed to see the film. Parents are not allowed to overrule this classification. Most R-rated films receive a 15 certificate in the UK.

Finally there are the 18s, which catch the rest of the R rated films. As with the 15, no-one under the age of 18 is allowed to see the film, and parents aren't allowed to overrule the classification. It is likely that some films that would receive an NC-17 in the States would get an 18 over here, but most such films get cut down to an R anyway.

I believe there is also an 18A rating, used for porn films. These films are never seen in a mainstream cinema, and can only be sold in speciality stores. I'm discounting them, as I'm only interested in mainstream films here. (Plus, see my note above about US unrated versions.)

Oh, and finally, the BBFC have the ability to ban a film (or, more commonly, a video game) outright, by refusing to grant any certificate.

So, here's my thoughts. Firstly, I think mandatory classification is a good thing. Secondly, I think the role of the BBFC should be to classify films, not to censor them, and not to ban them. Thirdly and finally, I think the US policy, where parents can overrule the classifications for their children is a good thing. (Yes, that does mean that parents could, in theory, take their five-year-olds to see "Saw". I don't believe it is the job of the state to stop them from doing something so obviously stupid.)

So, I would leave the classifications as they currently are, except that I'd rename the '12A' back to '12'. I would change the rules for the 15 and 18 so that parents can overrule the classification. And I would expand the 18 certificate to include 'anything else'.

I would also change the role of the BBFC. Firstly, they seem to have been taking the view lately that standards in society have changed, and so film classifications should change to match. And so, "The Dark Knight" gets a 12A where "Robocop" got an 18, and yet the former is much more violent and disturbing than the latter. (And no-one has reclassified "Robocop", so a 12-year old will be able to buy one DVD but not the other in a few months, which is... odd, to say the least.) I disagree with this emphatically. Rating standards should remain consistent, so that people can actually trust the ratings that are given to films.

Secondly, I would remove their ability to order cuts from films. In fact, I would go one step further: I would forbid them from offering advice to studios on how to cut films for lesser certificates. The finished film should be presented to them, a certificate applied, and that should be the end of the matter. (I really don't like watching cut films.)

Thirdly, I would remove their ability to ban a film. Their job is to classify, not to censor. If someone is stupid enough to go see a "Saw", "Hostel" or "Captivity" film, then they really should be complaining about all the horrific violence - they should have known going in that the films have an 18 certificate, that that actually means something... and they should know what these films are about and what they entail.

Back to "The Dark Knight". It is a fantastic film. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it should be at least a 15, and perhaps even an 18.


Molly said...

I have not seen Dark Knight but have heard about it and quite frankly it disturbs me that parents are taking their children under the age of 12 to see it. It bothers me so much when parents here take their child to see an adult movie because they themselves want to watch it and can't get a sitter. I have only ever taken Ned to the movies once with me for a film I wanted to watch, Oceans 13, which from having watched the previous two, knew that there wouldn't be anything offensive in there. Besides, I also gave him Benadryl and he fell asleep - see what a good parent I am?!

Steph/ven said...

I'm not keen on it either, especially since I don't want to be bothered by a screaming child when I'm watching a movie.

However... given that they are the parents in question, and should in theory know what is better for their children somewhat better than some faceless BBFC bureaucrat, I'm going to stand in favour of their right to choose.

(Mostly, I want to government to have as little influence on my life as possible. Film classifications are a useful guide and a good thing; film censorship, not so much.)

Molly said...

You are right, it should be up to the parent. But unfortunately the world has been blessed with idiotic ones who cannot make good choices to save their lives. And yes, I hated it when I was not a parent and someone had a screaming child in the movie theater, so I have never inflicted Ned on them in the same way.