Allow me some pre-amble. It’s all Spider-Man’s fault. The webbed bastard ruined it for us all. But I’m jumping ahead of myself. First off, there will be SPOILERS ahead for a number of recent releases, most notable Hanna and Fast Five. Secondly as easy as it can be to slip into a diatribe against the MPAA this is very much a BBFC article; as much as the MPAA pretty much piss off everyone they’re far too easy (and prolific) a target. It’s about time someone questioned the practices of our home-grown talent.

A refresher (or primer for those outside the UK): The BBFC is a regulatory board for all visual media in the UK, encompassing media shown in the cinema, on television and released for home entertainment. Even video games fall under their reach. In most cases, the ‘work’ is viewed by at least two examiners who follow set BBFC guidelines to classify the film for release.

For the sake of being thorough, up until 2002, after U (suitable for all) and PG (parental guidance) the ratings are presented in numerical definitions referring to age: 12, 15 and 18. There is an R18 but this is reserved for the kind of films you find in your Uncle’s favourite shop. The one with the curtains. You know the one…

Unlike the USA, these numerical certifications were cut and dry. If you weren’t old enough you weren’t getting in, quite simply they were respected. The BBFC reached a turning point in the late 90’s with the leave of James Ferman (he of the video nasties) as Director and the appointment of Andreas Whittam Smith as President, who took a more relaxed view to censorship, respecting an adult’s right to choose what they view as entertainment. This resulted in the release of many previously banned films in the UK, the most high profile of which included The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This attitude has continued into the present day with current president Sir Quentin Thomas, with many works of questionable content being released into UK cinemas and homes uncut. In comparison the MPAA they have practically been raised onto a pedestal as nothing less than defenders of free speech and liberty.

Maybe this is an overreaction. Back to Spider-Man! In 2002 when Sam Raimi’s seminal comic book film was released it was (rightly) slapped with a 12 rating by the BBFC for scenes of strong fantasy violence. Parents were outraged! How could it be, that these strange people who have always dictated what parents can and can’t show their children dare suggest their kids can’t see a man in blue and red spandex doing whatever a spider can? Parents always think they know best for their child, and to some extent that’s the way it always should be, but with Spider-Man they decided that the BBFC were wrong and they were going to be heard. Of course, parents hadn’t seen them film yet, but they decided that it was OK for their kids because it was colourful and tried to do something about it.

Allegedly the board received many letters from disappointed kids and surprised parents who couldn’t understand why a film so clearly and aggressively marketed at children couldn’t be seen by them. Really the BBFC were doing their job and the complaint should have been taken up with the studio but that was clearly too big a concept to understand.

As it lies within the power of Local Councils to re-classify films in their district, Pressure was put on them to re-classify the film as PG, something which almost thirty of them did. Obviously this happens rarely but once it does it naturally becomes an issue for the fingerhuts at the Daily Mail. The only other time* I remember this happening in my lifetime was, strangely enough, Mrs. Doubtfire in 1993 being lowered from 12 to PG something which made me worryingly excited for a 7 year old.

Anyway, with this the BBFC hilariously tried to act as if it was way ahead of anyone else, reminding the public that they had been running trials of an advisory certificate for 12 rated films allowing parents to make the decision, similar to the MPAA’s PG-13. Long story short, they stated that Spider-Man wasn’t the reason the 12A certificate was introduced in September 2002 because they’d once thought of it before. Even though it clearly was the reason. Funnier than that, they stated that the decision was made because they “recognised that children were growing up faster and that parents were better placed to decide what their children should watch”.

A)     I’m pretty sure Robert Winston disagrees!

And

B)      If that’s the case why do the BBFC even bother? Parents have existed for WAY longer.

And with that the 12A was born (for cinema only, not on home releases where it stays as 12), the first film officially released being The Bourne Identity. All current 12 releases were retroactively re-classified and a new era was born. An era of having to watch a 12A rated film in the evening or a weekday if you wanted to watch a film in peace and quiet, because a parent’s better judgement dictates that an 18 month old should watch Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (Caroline Gray, you stupid woman, this is aimed at you…).

Yes, I’m going on way too long.

So yeah, with this the BBFC took one step closer to the irrelevance of the MPAA and everyone celebrated it as a progressive move. I should add when I was 14 I went skiing in Colorado and my Dad took me to see Hannibal. I wasn’t fussed but he wanted to see it, so obviously that meant it was acceptable for me. At least I can assume that’s the way it works as there was a couple of kids no older than 6 in the cinema with their parents who clearly couldn’t find a babysitter. God Bless America.

Getting to the point its Hanna that’s got me all riled up. Obviously everything I say here is completely subjective to me and I’m not stating it as fact even if I believe it to be absolutely and irrevocably true. Hanna is not a 12A, even though the BBFC say it is. Oh and I completely adored the film, a fucking corker. But that’s not the point.

The BBFC rate Hanna as 12A for moderate violence and one use of strong language. For the record Thor is rated 12A for moderate fantasy violence. Watch them both and tell me they’re suitable for the same audience, one fuck or not. The BBFC describes the film as:

“a post-Cold War action thriller about a former intelligence operative, who lives with his 16 year old daughter, Hanna, in the arctic wastes of Finland, where he is training her to be an assassin.”

Regardless of her age (and I don’t recall them ever saying she was 16 in the film, although every review seems to say as such so either I missed a trick or people really are relying on press notes), it presents the story of a child who is raised to murder in cold blood. Her ‘father’ may tell her it’s a survival instinct, but he could also have just taken her far away and raised her into a normal life. Instead he takes her to the Arctic Circle and raises her with the sole purpose of one day going out and murdering the woman who killed her mother, not to mention all the people who get in the way. Her actions result in her being hunted by a gang of German assassins with questionable sexual practices (including proclivities towards hermaphrodites and children), as well as the death of many innocent people, some made more explicit than others. One man gets stabbed in the neck with a pen while strapped to a chair, helpless.

Not to mention the incredibly creepy sequence towards the end of the film with Grimm, a man clearly a relation to The Child Catcher. Although more troubling to me was the death of this man. Hanging upside down by his feet, his body is riddled with arrows, bleeding down to the floor. Not only this but the teenage protagonist slowly removes one of these arrows with no regard to the dead human in front of her. The BBFC guidelines for 12A state that:

“Moderate violence is allowed but it should not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood, but occasional gory moments may be permitted if they can be justified by their context (for example brief sight of bloody injury in a medical drama)”

I’m not sure in what context the BBFC finds this result of torture and murder acceptable for as 12A but clearly they found one. In fact the BBFC’s Extended Classification Information (ECI) for Hanna only really details a few scenes of violence in the films and makes no reference whatsoever to the tone and thematic current running throughout. It can be argued that the BBFC don’t take potential subjective readings into consideration, as a means of better classifying the film for a wider audience but of course this is wrong. Again referring to their own guidelines:

“The overall tone of a film, DVD or video game, and the way it makes the audience feel may affect the classification. For example, a work which has a very dark or unsettling tone which could disturb the audience would be less likely to be passed ‘12A’ even if the individual issues in the film were considered acceptable under the BBFC guidelines. Similarly, if a work is particularly positive or reassuring this may stop it being pushed up a category.”

What about Hanna is either light enough in tone or positive and reassuring enough in its tale of a child raised to murder to earn the 12A rating? At least the MPAA’s PG-13 consumer advice states it was rated as such for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material and language. That’s a much better picture for a parent of what to expect. Also, this is probably the last time I will congratulate the MPAA.

(Side Note: The King’s Speech recently proved that the BBFC will acquiesce to public pressure when a film is winning awards and celebrates Britain. I have no problem with their justification for lowering the rating to a 12A; it just opens up a whole massive can of worms. Where do you draw the line at acceptable swearing? Would it still have happened if the sequence was exactly the same, but the culprit wasn’t British royalty rather say… Begbie?)

Also important is the question of imitable behaviour in film and its influence on the BBFC’s rating. Gone in 60 Seconds was given a 15 due to the imitable techniques of car thievery. Of course those under 15 know how to drive so it was an issue of national importance. This continued into 2001 with The Fast and the Furious, distributor Universal was advised that it wouldn’t be able to have the 12 certificate it desired due to the imitable nature of the film’s street races. As such it was given a 15 rating and street racing didn’t surge in the UK as a result. The Fast and the Furious’ 15-cert was given for ‘some strong language and moderate action and violence’. Last month’s Fast Five was given a 12A for ‘moderate action violence and one use of strong language’. For reference the first film features one Fuck and a few Assholes. And no, I’m not talking about Paul Walker.

What dictates imitable behaviour in the first place? I’d wager a wide majority of mainstream films released in the cinema contain behaviour that could be considered morally dubious and if imitated potentially dangerous, not to mention illegal. I’d imagine it comes done to how easily it could be imitated in reality, and for obvious reasons this tends to be limited to scenes of a violent or rebellious nature.** I can’t imagine many people are going to pretend to be the Norse god of thunder outside the confines of their own bedroom, no matter what age they are. Again while it’s odd that the BBFC would limit people under the age of 15 from seeing something they can’t legally partake in anyway regardless of limitability, it’s even stranger that Hanna escaped so lightly.

Children under the age of 15 are permitted to watch a film in which the lead character (no more than 16 years of age) has been trained her whole life to murder people, a singular purpose, with intentions of revenge. She’s given the power to decide when she is ready to start murdering people and egged on by her father she starts breaking necks, stabbing people and firing the odd bullet and arrow. With the exception of the guns, I’d say there’s not a lot there that an impressionable youth could decide to try out, thinking they could be like Hanna in a few short years. Of course to those better educated there’s a fairy tale construct to the narrative but it’s not explicitly presented as such. The “crunchy violence” and emphasis on the finality of death force home the reality of the situation.

There’s an argument that ‘fantasy violence’ is judged differently, one that the BBFC have tried to apply to Hanna. I mean while many more people are killed in a Harry Potter film than Hanna the kids don’t go out looking for it and any self defence is aided by magic. Not something you can try at home. There’s obviously a heightened reality at play due to Hanna’s altered DNA but it’s a very slight justification in the scheme of things.

‘Fantasy Violence’ was a term used to appease angry parents with The Dark Knight (12A) as well, the BBFC’s argument being that Batman and The Joker are superheroes and as such presented as “indestructible characters”; no mention of course of the countless other human lives taken or threatened over the course of the film. Thor is fantasy. The Dark Knight with an emphasis in grounding its hero’s actions in the real world is heightened reality. It’s a whole other kettle of fish I’m not sure I want to get into right now, but where does the line between fantasy and reality get drawn with superhero films? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Anyhow, this is all tantamount to nothing really. You can’t stem the tide and I’m sure there are countless people who disagree with me. Personally I’m not sure there’s a solution that would please everybody. One numpty suggested rating each film to its appropriate age between 8 and 18. It’s hard enough to enforce this law*** with the few certifications we have. Personally I believe the BBFC need to revert to the standard 12 certificate and remind people they are a mandatory rating system, not advisory.

Of course the measuring stick by which these things are judged seems to get lower every year, and I’m not in a position to say whether or not it’s a good thing or not. Although I’m pretty sure kids aren’t growing up faster, last time I checked there was still the same number of days in a year. Not sure it says a great deal of good about our culture.

 

By the way, the BBFC’s original 12 rating for Spider-Man was for “a level of personal violence and a revenge theme that went beyond what was acceptable under the ‘PG’ Guidelines -’Moderate violence without detail…if justified by its setting’.” Food for thought.

 

*Of course there’s also the time Westminster Council banned Crash. The good David Cronenberg one. Shame they couldn’t have repeated it with the 2005 Crash. I personally found it much more offensive.

**Sex isn’t too much of a hot button topic of late with the BBFC, the general understanding being that it’s legal, people are doing it and as long as it’s consensual it can be classified appropriately. Also unlike the MPAA the BBFC doesn’t discriminate between male and female sexual gratification.

***And it is a law! It’s amazing how many people don’t seem to realise this. Working in the cinema I’d constantly come up against parents who felt their judgement was above the law when it came to their children and it’s this ignorance which the BBFC need to be fighting, not bending over for.