The Hunger Games is a film which prompts reflection and invites comment. Given our central concern for child protection, what has the experience of classifying it been like?
Of course the BBFC doesn't commission or control the films it classifies, though people sometimes comment as though we do! Film studios often aim for a specific age rating when making a film. Although the main focus of most US studios will be a particular MPAA rating, the UK is a significant market and the BBFC classification may also be a relevant consideration. With this in mind, the BBFC offers a number of services to help filmmakers, including British ones, achieve the rating they want.
For those unfamiliar with the books or film, The Hunger Games depicts a dystopian, future North America in which a totalitarian government requires an annual tribute from each section of the country. This tribute takes the form of a girl and boy who must compete in a televised 'game' in which the participants are manipulated by the authorities into killing eachother, or succumbing to the hostile environment, until only one competitor is alive and can win the 'game'.
Before the film's formal UK classification, Lionsgate, the UK distributor of The Hunger Games, approached the BBFC for classification advice. Lionsgate made clear that they were looking for a 12A classification which would enable many children who had read and enjoyed the book to see the film. However, it was clear that the film shown to us at this early stage went some way beyond the BBFC's Guidelines at 12A. The level of detail of some of the violence and gore, such as the tending of bloody wounds, required the 15 category.
We also considered at this early stage whether the theme and overall tone of the film were appropriate for 12-year-olds. Although the concept of children and young people being forced to fight and kill one another is potentially disturbing, we concluded that the futuristic and fantastical nature of the setting distanced the sense of threat from reality. The film is also alive to ethical questions and we believed young teenagers were likely to understand that the film, like the novel, is a critique of violence and of media manipulation. Indeed, it vividly invites its viewers to use and develop their media literacy skills.
The story has some similarities to The Lord of the Flies, which is taught in schools to the same age group. If anything, the latter takes a bleaker view of human nature.
Having concluded that the issues of theme and tone were appropriate for 12-year-olds, we suggested how the distributor might be able to secure the desired 12A classification by reducing the level of violence, blood and gore. Lionsgate returned with another version of the film for advice, which took account of some of our suggestions. However it was still some way off the 12A criteria. Scenes with emphasis on injuries and blood remained, going against what the public, through our research and consultations, have told us is acceptable at this relatively junior category. We again offered advice as to what Lionsgate should remove for the film to be contained at the 12A category.
When the film was finally submitted for formal classification we required a further seven seconds of cuts to the most violent and bloody sequence, which takes place as the 'game' begins, as well as the digital removal of some bloody effects.
In all, Lionsgate removed around 20 seconds of the most violent, threatening and gory content and digitally removed other bloody effects. This was their choice. The BBFC did not require Lionsgate to make any cuts at all. We offered a 15 classification without cuts. But for perfectly understandable reasons, Lionsgate chose to make these cuts to secure the 12A rating they desired.
Lionsgate used the BBFC's advice services in an appropriate and successful way and The Hunger Games has since gone on to significant commercial success. By 20 April, 3.3 million people had seen the film in British cinemas. As of now, 38 filmgoers have complained to the BBFC about the classification. Most of these, like some of the media, thought the 12A rating too low, but a minority argued that it should not have been cut for 12A. Although it's clear that the complainants were in a small minority, we nevertheless take each complaint seriously and respond to each one.
Some may be surprised to hear that 38 is a larger number of complaints than the average. This being the case we will test the film with audiences in 2013 when we carry out our next regular large scale public consultation on our Classification Guidelines. As part of this research, we ask the public whether they agreed with our classification decisions for certain films. This exercise helps us ensure we continue to match the public's expectations in relation to issues such as horror, violence, sex, discrimination, language and drugs. In 2013, we will also test the public's response to our classification of horror and threat in The Woman in Black. Like with The Hunger Games the distributor of this film made cuts to bring it into line with the BBFC's 12A Guidelines. Again like The Hunger Games, the classification of The Woman in Black has received some critical comment - 122 complaints from the 3.5 million filmgoers who have seen the film in cinemas as of 20 April.
In our 2009 Guidelines consultation, the public agreed with our decisions for individual films over 90% of the time. In 2009, one film on which we were particularly keen to get the public's view was The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan's film had been a critical and commercial success but attracted over 300 complaints to the BBFC about its 12A rating. Some in the media also rounded on the BBFC for being, in their view, unduly lenient. If anything, the concern was rather greater than with either The Woman In Black or The Hunger Games, As part of our Guidelines consultation, we commissioned independent researchers to ask the public what it thought about the classification of The Dark Knight. 69% of the public agreed with the 12A rating. Although this is considerably lower than the average of over 90% agreement, it is still supportive of our decision. Had we awarded the film a 15 classification, we'd have had the support of only 30% of film-goers.
It is important for us that we continue to command high levels of public trust. So we will continue to put our decisions forward for public scrutiny, particularly those which have attracted comment. And if we get a clear message to do so, we will continue to adjust our standards and policies to reflect what the public expects of us.
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