I went to see The Dark Knight a few weeks ago. As well as seeing it for my own enjoyment, I had half an eye out to try and decide if it would be suitable for my (seven year old) son. As it happens, I didn’t need half an eye, or even a quarter or a tenth; it is hugely, wildly, inappropriate for seven year olds. So much so, in fact that the BBFC received more than 80 complaints about the 12A certificate that the film had been granted, and they felt obliged to defend the decision:-
The film regulator’s spokeswoman Sue Clark said the sequel was a fantasy movie with only implied violence. But she admitted that the British Board of Film Classification had carefully considered giving it a 15 rating. The 12A rating states that a film should not “dwell on violence” and “does not emphasise injury or blood”.
And she also explained that the next rating up, a 15 certificate, would have stopped some people who wanted to see the film doing so:-
She added that a 15 certificate would have denied an important part of the superhero’s fan base the chance to see the film. “Younger teenagers would not have been able to see it, and they are the very people who are going to love it. “We would have ended up with far more complaints from people who wanted to see the film and couldn’t,” said Ms Clark.
The BBFC’s actual decision can be found here.
(Interestingly, the BBC also looked at how other countries had certified the film – only one country, Finland, had specifically barred some children (those under 13) from seeing it; every other country had allowed it to be viewable by all, either explicitly, or implicitly by using discretionary rather than mandatory ratings.)
I see two problems here. The first is the range of certificates which the BBFC uses. In order, they are:-
- U Suitable for all
- PG May contain scenes unsuitable for young children, but children of all ages may still attend unaccompanied.
- 12A May contain scenes unsuitable for young children, and children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult
- 15 No one under the age of 15 may see this film in a cinema
- 18 No one under the age of 18 may see this film in a cinema
I had thought, before I went and checked the BBFC web site, that there was also a 12 certificate which barred children from under 12 from seeing the film in the cinema at all, accompanied by an adult or not. But there is not. There is a 12 certificate, but it applies only to renting or buying movies on DVD. Typically, films which are 12A in the cinema will end up as 12 certificate when they’re released on DVD.
And that’s the problem. The earliest age at which the BBFC can actually stop children seeing a film in the cinema is 15. There is no certificate which absolutely bars children of any younger age. This makes the BBFC’s comment about not wanting to stop young teenagers from seeing Dark Knight slightly more defensible, but what it gives with one hand it takes away with the other, since it also makes the BBFC look like idiots for not having a mandatory 12 certificate for films in the cinema.
The inevitable consequence of this gap is that film-makers will always aim for a 12A or PG certificate, since a big part of their audience is indeed young teenagers, and a 15 certificate would ruin that. So films as diverse in tone as The House Bunny, The Dark Knight, The Duchess, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (a holocaust film), Get Smart, Indiana Jones 4 and the last two Harry Potter films have all been 12A certificate. But the difference between a broad comedy like Get Smart or an action movie like Indiana Jones 4 and Dark Knight is substantial, and that brings me to the second problem.
It doesn’t seem to me that the BBFC is very good at assessing the tone of a film. Dark Knight and Spiderman 1/2/3 are both superhero films and summer blockbusters, but they’re worlds apart tonally; Spiderman is a bright, breezy cartoon, whereas Dark Knight is a brooding, morbid sort of film, devoid of anything you might call a happy ending, where bad things happen to good people for no particular reason. It’s a nihilistic and morally repugnant film (and that’s not necessarily a criticism; it’s a well made and powerful film of a certain tone, that’s all) and the BBFC don’t classify for nihilism. Sure, if you watch the scenes of violence carefully, the film’s editors are careful not to show blood or dwell on the corpses, and much of the violence you might think you saw is actually cut away from before the act itself. But the questions of who’s committing violence on whom and why are a level above the portrayal of the act itself, and the BBFC seem oblivious to that level. They have guidelines about “mature themes”, but they’re really about specific acts – drug taking, sex, cruelty – disguised as themes. There ought to be a mandatory 12 certificate, and Dark Knight ought to have been certified so, not for “contains moderate violence”, but for “tonally dark and therefore unsuitable for young children”.
(In the interests of balance, here’s a well argued take in the other direction, though it’s arguing specifically that Dark Knight ought not to be a 15 certificate. I wonder if the author would feel differently about a mandatory 12 certificate, were it possible to award one.)