The BBFC and 12 years of 12A: does the system work?

The BBFC has released a video explaining how the 12A system works. But does it make sense, and how effective is it?

In mid-July, it emerged that the Tom Cruise action movie Jack Reacher had received a number of complaints for the intensity of its violence. Jack Reacher, you may recall, was released in a slightly cut form with a 12A certificate last year, and remained an intense and quite violent adaptation of Lee Child’s source thriller novel.

Complaints about the film emerged in the BBFC’s annual report, which stated that a total of 26 people had picked fault with the Board’s rating. “Despite a number of reductions made to scenes of violence to achieve a 12A certificate,” the BBFC said, “those who contacted us considered the film too violent, dark and sadistic for 12-year-olds, and inappropriately presented the hero as a vigilante figure.”

Criticisms over Jack Reacher’s violence and darkness paled somewhat when compared to the number of complaints the BBFC received a year earlier. Supernatural chiller The Woman In Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, had also been given a 12A certificate, and a total of 134 written complaints came in about the film’s inappropriate level of intensity.

Of the 12A certificate, and the occasional suggestions that it’s misapplied to certain films, the BBFC’s director David Cooke said the following to the BBC:

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“It’s inherently a slightly more complicated explanation than most … [But] especially at that age, children are developing at different speeds, and therefore their own parents are far better placed than us to judge whether a particular film would give their child too intense an experience or not.”

This is a sentiment clearly repeated in a new advert, recently commissioned by the BBFC and due to appear in cinemas from the 1st August. Film Divider brought it to our attention, and you can see it for yourself in the embed below:

The message, then, is fairly clear: it’s up to parents to decide whether films with a 12A certificate are suitable for their kids. To help them make an informed decision, each film listed on the BBFC’s website has a special ‘Insight’ section (stylised as BBFCinsight), which goes into more detail about a film’s plot, and possible areas for concern (such as violence, nudity or swearing).

According to the BBFC, this service aims to give “Clear and objective information about every film”, with the descriptions allowing parents to decide for themselves whether or not, say, this year’s Hercules (rated 12A) is too intense for their children. On the face of it, the Insight system isn’t a bad one, even if it does mean that diligent parents could end up having a film spoiled for themselves during their research.

You’ll probably remember that the 12A rating was introduced in the summer of 2002. It followed widespread controversy surrounding the release of Sam Raimi’s blockbuster Spider-Man, which the BBFC had slapped with its old 12 certification due to the intensity of a fight scene between the Green Goblin and the web-slinging hero. Parents, who’d been expecting the film to be given a PG rating, complained that their under-12s were effectively barred from seeing a film plainly aimed at their children’s age group. As a result of this, the BBFC scrapped the 12 rating in cinemas (but retained it for home entertainment) and replaced it with the new 12A certificate. This rating, as it still does today, reverted the job of censoring what kids could see back to parents: if they wanted their seven-year-old to see a film rated 12A, then they could.

“It is what the British public have told us they want,” the BBFC’s then-director Robin Duvall stated. “We receive a steady stream of letters from parents asking why they cannot make the decision about whether their child can see a 12-rated film. We know that the development and maturity of children varies considerably and parents know best what their children can deal with.”

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The problem parents face, however, is that the number of films rated 12A is now greater than ever, as studios clamour to get their films in front of as wide an audience as possible. To return to the example of Hercules again, the BBFC’s web page for the film clearly states the following:

“During post-production, the distributor sought and was given advice on how to secure the desired classification. Following this advice, certain changes were made prior to submission.”

In other words, Hercules was toned down slightly to get the 12A rating desired by the studio  – though not as noticeably, we should add, as films such as Taken 2 or A Good Day To Die Hard. What this means is that, as well as the usual raft of summer films expressly made for family audiences, there are certain films that are quite adult in tone, such as Jack Reacher, which have been tempered slightly to gain the required rating.

It once again falls to parents, then, to decide for themselves which films are appropriate, either by consulting the BBFC’s website or watching a film themselves ahead of time, to decide what their children can watch. For parents juggling a job and a busy family life, that’s potentially a tall order in itself, particularly when they’re forced to take some of the BBFC’s judgements on trust. How are parents supposed to know whether their idea of what constitutes for “moderate” levels of violence align with those of the BBFC?

The BBFC will itself impose different limits on violence depending on context – so in other words, it’s fine for a superhero to despatch villains with “crunchy neck breaks” (the BBFC’s own words, taken from the Insight description of a recent comic book movie), but in something like Taken 2, the noises of Liam Neeson snapping the necks of gangsters in Istanbul were carefully excised in order to conform to the same rating.

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Often, the BBFC will focus on the detail of violence in a 12A film rather than the implications of it. In the case of the “disappearing pencil” scene in The Dark Knight, for example, the death of a mobster at the hands of the Joker was deemed appropriate for a 12A certificate because we don’t actually see the gory details of the pencil damaging the victim’s skull – even though the killing is notionally horrific (hence its impact on our collective memory) and despite the fact that the BBFC’s own guidelines for the 12A certificate clearly states, “Weapons which might be available to 12-year-olds (such as knives) should not be glamorised in 12A and 12 works”.

Then there’s the slippery subject of tone. The BBFC states that a film will be awarded a 12A certificate if “the overall tone is not disturbing,” which sounds fine on paper. But how does the BBFC even begin to measure what is or is not an overall disturbing tone? It could be argued that the tone of last year’s Jack Reacher, as much as its violence, was to blame for the small ripple of complaints it received. 

One of the most disturbing moments in that film – present in both the 12A theatrical cut and the later 15-rated edit – sees a man with a sniper rifle calmly hunker down in a multi-storey car park and gun down a number of innocent people, seemingly at random. As per the BBFC’s guidelines, the sequence doesn’t focus on gory headshots. But like the pencil scene in The Dark Knight, it’s tonally and notionally terrifying – it’s a mark of Christopher McQuarrie’s skill as a director that this scene feels so brutal and chaotic in the moment, without explicitly showing too much bloodshed. Yet it remains a spectacularly harsh moment in a film that could, theoretically, have been seen by children under the age of 12 had they been taken to the cinema by an adult.

Oddly, the impact of this moment seems to have been lost on the BBFC. The Insight page for the 12A version of Jack Reacher doesn’t even mention this scene, and chooses instead to describe some of the fight scenes featuring Tom Cruise (“…little is shown in terms of blood or injury detail).

This just goes to show the inherent problem with such a ratings system. The BBFC says, in good faith we’re sure, that it aims to give “Clear and objective information about every film”, yet the process of deciding what is “moderate violence” or “not disturbing” is inevitably subjective. What the BBFC might deem appropriate for a relatively young audience – a sniper going beserk in the middle of a city, Daniel Radcliffe reeling in terror from ghosts in an old haunted house – might seem less appropriate to some parents or their more sensitive-minded children.

Ultimately, deciding what is and is not appropriate for children to watch is nebulous and tricky process, and it’s unsurprising, perhaps, that not everyone will agree with the BBFC’s decisions on certain films – particularly when more and more of them are being released with a 12A certificate. According to the BBFC, 87 more films were released with a 12A certificate in 2013 than in the previous year.

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But we can at least be grateful that the BBFC is more transparent and less overbearing than the old censorship board of old. The Board’s website is easy to browse and clearly written, and the body as a whole now pitches itself as a tool for parents and cinemagoers rather than a stern moral guardian. No system is perfect, though, and it could be argued that some of the BBFC’s decisions over what constitutes “fantasy” rather than “realistic violence” could do with more clarification.

It might even be helpful if the BBFC abandoned its supposed “objectivity” altogether, and outright stated the individual examiners’ opinion on the content of certain films. After all, wouldn’t the individual opinion of a parent – or better yet, the opinions of a range of examiners from several walks of life – be more valuable to us than that of a faceless organisation’s hazy definition of what is or is not appropriate? Maybe then, with individual opinions from examiners to go alongside the 12A rating, parents could more accurately distinguish between lighter fare and potentially disturbing films like Jack Reacher or The Woman In Black.