The Big Question: How do censors determine the award of certificates to films?

Why are we asking this now?

The new Batman movie, besides being wildly popular, may be the most violent and disturbing film to have been passed as a 12A – and that rating has led some people to question the validity of the movie certification system. Concern has been expressed in the Press, and on Newsnight Review on BBC2 last week, critic Paul Morley said that he was "absolutely staggered" that children would be able to attend the film. The controversy is heightened by the fact that under the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)'s 12A rating, a child of any age accompanied by an adult will be able to see the movie.

What is it about the movie that has caused concern?

Some violence has long been considered acceptable in movies rated 12 or 12A – indeed, when the first Spiderman movie was released, there was a public outcry over the fact that parents wouldn't be able to take younger children to what was seen as a family film. Shortly afterwards the 12 rating was relaxed to give parents more discretion.

The difference with the new film is that most critics and observers have noted The Dark Knight's deliberately realistic approach, unlike the cartoonish violence in most other superhero movies. Examples of intensely troubling scenes involving Heath Ledger's Joker abound, including a gun being held to a child's head and a bomb being stitched into someone's stomach.

How have the censors justified their rating?

According to the BBFC judgement on the film, its bloodier scenes nevertheless fit the criteria of a 12A: the violence "does not dwell on detail", and there is "no emphasis on injuries or blood". Much of the brutality is only implied, taking place off camera. And in contrast to the view of the film as the most realistic superhero movie yet, the BBFC says that "both Batman and the Joker are apparently indestructible no matter what is thrown at them". The warning that appears on the film poster refers to "moderate violence and sustained threat".

Is this a change from previous policies?

No, but the body has become more liberal over the ratings it gives out in recent years. Since the relatively strict Chief Executive James Ferman left in 1999, successors Robin Duval and David Cooke have overseen a less restrictive set of policies. Far fewer films are cut than used to be, and BBFC censors have admitted that movies like 9 Songs and Intimacy, both of which feature unsimulated sex scenes, would probably not have been allowed in the past, even as 18s.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the change to an "advisory" rather than compulsory 12 certificate exemplifies a move towards a policy which, to quote Robin Duval, "asks parents to take on the responsibility to be media literate" – meaning that they should decide for themselves whether their 10-year-old is sufficiently mature to handle a 12.

Is the BBFC not in the censorship business?

In the long-term, the organisation's purpose has changed radically – it was founded as the "British Board of Film Censors" rather than "Certification", a name it retained until 1984, and was once just as likely to censor a movie for a dangerous idea as a violent act. Advances in film technology and audience sophistication have made films that might once have seemed terrifying appear ridiculous: Revenge of The Zombies, for instance, was released as an X in 1951, and is now available on video as a U. Even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was originally classed as A for adults.

How do our rules compare with the rest of the world?

Regulations vary considerably from country to country. In France, bad language has very little effect on the film board's decision, and censors tend to be far more liberal: American Beauty, which was rated an 18 in the UK, received the equivalent of a U rating.

In America, on the other hand, sexual activity is dealt with even more stringently than it is in the UK. Even relatively mild gay sex is particularly likely to garner the dreaded NC-17 rating, which spells commercial disaster for any big budget production.

How are ratings decided in the UK?

A pair of the BBFC's 20 censors watch films with a set of criteria in mind that govern what kind of content is deemed appropriate for each rating, and decide the certificate accordingly. Some of the rules seem to suggest that violent conduct is more acceptable than sex: in a PG, for instance, "moderate violence" is allowed, but sexual activity may only be implied. Rules regarding bad language are especially stringent. In contrast to The Dark Knight's 12A rating, the forthcoming film Frost/Nixon has been made a 15 – because, while it contains extremely limited sex and violence, it does include the word "motherfucker". Swearing is avoided in The Dark Knight.

What are these criteria based on?

The need to protect children from particularly disturbing images is high on the BBFC's stated agenda, as is the fear of "imitable techniques" leading to real-world mayhem. More nebulously, the organisation also tries to keep pace with general social views of what is and isn't acceptable for particular age ranges, as judged by consultation with focus groups.

Those groups' reactions form part of the justification for the differing attitudes to sex and violence: "People will generally say sex is OK but violence is very, very bad," one anonymous censor explains. "But in actual fact, when they watch the films they quite enjoy the action, but get quite offended by the sex. It's quite hard to work out the truth as to what people think is acceptable."

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are few reliable studies on which to base decisions, in part because it's hard to view the effects of violent images on children in an ethically acceptable way – hence the concern over something like The Dark Knight. With adults, the consensus now is that we should more or less be able to view what we want.

To quote Robin Duval: "[There is a] constituency which believes that if something looks pretty brutal, then common sense tells you it must have a malign effect on society. Well, I've spent 15 years reviewing that proposition and the one thing I know is that adults simply aren't affected in a malign manner by material which is merely shocking."

Should I take my kids to The Dark Knight?

Yes...

*The film is a superhero fantasy, and the worst violence takes place off screen.

*The system lets you decide. If you think they are mature enough, they probably are.

*They will almost certainly see it on video anyway – better to have a parent with them.

No...

*The movie has been praised for its gritty approach. The violence feels real.

*The 12A certificate still suggests it's not suitable for younger children.

*Giving your parental approval will only normalise the violence in your child's eyes.

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