This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
When E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial emerged in 1982, its childlike alien melted hearts everywhere. At the Cannes Film Festival, where Steven Spielberg’s film was screened out of competition, E.T. got a standing ovation, its audience clapping for a full 15 minutes as the final credits rolled. At a royal gala screening, Princess Diana reportedly cried so much that she had to be whisked away to have her makeup fixed by her aides.
As E.T. smashed attendance records, eventually topping Star Wars as the highest-grossing film up to that point, the sci-fi drama’s classic status seemed assured. The performances from the child cast, including Henry Thomas as the lead, Elliott, and Drew Barrymore as his sister Gertie, were note-perfect. The title alien, created by Carlo Rambaldi, was a masterpiece of practical effects. John Williams’ score seemed lighter than air; Spielberg’s direction was full of warmth yet also laced with melancholy.
Not everyone was entirely enamoured with E.T., however – especially in Scandinavia, where the film was treated with surprising harshness by local ratings boards. In January 1983, reports began to emerge that The Swedish Board Of Film Censorship had made the decision to ban children under the age of 11 from seeing E.T. – the reason, it said, was because the film “portrays adults as enemies of children.”
In the US, by contrast, the film was rated PG for “language and thematic elements,” which meant that parents could take kids of any age to see it. In the UK, the British Board of Film Classification gave E.T. a U (or Universal) rating; while noting that the movie contains a bit of bad language, the certificate effectively meant that the board thought the film “suitable for audiences aged four or older.”
Sweden’s film board begged to differ. According to an Associated Press report published at the time, the country’s chief censor, Gunnel Arrback, believed that children under the age of 11 would be disturbed by E.T.‘s “threatening and frightening atmosphere.”
Arrback didn’t, unfortunately, elaborate on the widely-reported suggestion that E.T. had received a more restrictive certificate because of its portrayal of adults – that quote even reached Starlog Magazine in the US.
Nevertheless, the story that the Swedish board had restricted E.T. because of its scary adults – at one point, we see the children and their alien friend pursued by government agents – persisted in the American press. In a 1988 Chicago Tribune article, the writer jokingly states that, “The Stupidity of the grown-ups in E.T. proved too embarrassing for the Swedish Film Board.”
Whatever the reasons behind the ruling were, the decision provoked more than a little controversy from Swedish critics and cinemagoers alike.
“Seven-year-old kids in the 1940s and 650s were not as accustomed to strange and nasty things, lacking television and a single-station radio,” argued a Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, before suggesting that the rating had been put in place by wildly out-of-touch “middle-aged” censors.
Children appeared to agree, with demonstrations reportedly taking place outside cinemas as it opened in Stockholm on the 10th December. Placards were brandished, their messages including, “Away with the 11-year limit”, “Children’s films are made for children” and “Let us see E.T.“
Sweden wasn’t the only Scandinavian country to restrict E.T., either. Norway’s certification effectively banned the film for children under 12, while Finland restricted the film to audiences aged eight and above. Not that the ratings made much difference to the film’s success, which was hitting Europe like a tidal wave as it opened around 1982’s festive season.
“Swedish newspapers reported many children under 11, some with their parents, were seeing the movie by pretending they were of age,” read an Associated Press article at the time; by January 1983, the movie had already made $2.1m in Sweden alone.
Nevertheless, the media interest surrounding Sweden’s rating was such that Gunnel Arrback even wound up on American television to defend the ruling. When Arrback retired from her position in 2007, she talked about her years of rating – and occasionally censoring – movies, including the board’s decision to edit certain scenes of violence out of Martin Scorsese’s gangster film, Casino. When asked about E.T., however, Arrback didn’t cite the film’s scariness or even its depiction of adults as a reason for preventing under-11s from seeing it. Rather, she said it was because of its subtitles.
“One thing that you have to remember is that seven-year-olds in Sweden can’t read good enough to read the subtitles,” Arrback said. “We never dub films in Sweden, apart from those for very young children. So the movie still was in English, and much of the dialogue would be lost to seven-year-olds and younger of course. I think that was one of the factors, which of course the English speaking world wouldn’t understand.”
Strangely, Arrback decided not to offer this explanation on American television; instead, she said, “I made a sort of attack.”
“I wanted to show some of the difference between the Swedish way of thinking and the American way of thinking,” Arrback said. “And so what I said was something like: ‘Well, we might have been a bit too protective for your taste, but on the other hand in American movies, men make love to women with their pants on.”
Could it be that Arrback, 25 years after the initial ruling, felt mildly embarrassed about E.T.‘s certification? That E.T. was restricted because of its complicated subtitles wasn’t listed as a factor in 1982 certainly seems to be telling. Arrback’s position on film classification and censorship had also softened by the time she stepped down from the board in 2007.
“During the years,” Arrback told Variety, “I have become more and more convinced that film does not have a negative effect on the audience, and there has been no research that proves the opposite.”
In a fascinating reversal, Spielberg himself appeared to conclude that some of E.T.‘s imagery was a bit much for kids. When the director put out a new edition of the movie to coincide with its 20th anniversary in 2002, he infamously got ILM to digitally airbrush out the guns held by government agents and cops in one key scene, and replace them with walkie-talkies instead. The alteration was greeted with dismay and scorn by more than a few critics and fans – for evidence, look no further than South Park’s merciless takedown – while years later, even Spielberg expressed his regret.
“I was overly sensitive to some of the criticism E.T. got from parent groups when it was first released in 82,” Spielberg said in 2011, “having to do with Eliot saying ‘penis breath’ or the guns […]It was OK for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T.”
What Spielberg – and, quite possibly, film boards in Scandinavia – appeared to forget was that it was E.T.‘s rougher edges that made it such a rich story for kids. There’s a fairytale quality to Elliott’s friendship with E.T., but the sweetness is contrasted with the sense of mortality and danger. The sight of a pale, near-dead alien lying on a riverbank may have traumatised a generation of youngsters, but as Dr Bruno Bettleheim points out in his book, The Uses Of Enchantment, scenes of threat and tragedy are a vital ingredient in all fairytales:
“A struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence,” wrote Dr Bettelheim writes. “But if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”