Editorials, Film

Hunger Pains: My Problem With the MPAA and Its Ratings System

– Nathan

I should probably preface this article by stating that I have not seen or read The Hunger Games, and honestly, I have no interest in doing so. This article is probably going to land me in the hot water that I always seem to end up in for disliking the bandwagon movies of the past few years like The Dark Knight, Avatar, and Inception, but I just can’t help but disagree with popular opinion. This multi-platform franchise doesn’t interest me, so I’m not going to spend my time with it. Now that we have this over, let’s begin.

In a recent article on Our Far-Flung Correspondents, a blog curated by Roger Ebert with articles by international film critics, Michael Mirasol compared The Hunger Games to the Japanese film Battle Royale. Although the film is now generally regarded as a cult classic and was deemed by Quentin Tarantino to be the best film of the last decade (he liked The Green Lantern, so I can’t really trust him, honestly), it was not released in the United States because of the Columbine shootings. And what makes it similar to The Hunger Games? A dystopian future, adults cast as totalitarian figures, adolescents forced to kill each other.

Now to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me that these two films are similar, because as far as I can tell they are still pretty different once you move past the basic similarities. However, what does bother me is how two films dealing with the same thematic premise are treated entirely different by the MPAA Ratings Board and the American film industry in general. Although from everything I’ve read and heard, The Hunger Games is not as graphic as the novels, yet the violence is still heavily implied. If the moral standards of the MPAA are all they’re cracked up to be, this film would be stamped with an R and throw into a dustbin.

Battle Royale was made with close proximity in date to the Columbine shootings; however, there was a school shooting in Ohio only a few weeks ago, yet it already seems our national conscience has blocked it out and forgotten. I think there is a deeper, underlying reason for why The Hunger Games garners different, or even special, treatment. It is a sure-fire hit, while Battle Royale was not. Let’s break it down:

1) The Hunger Games is from the good ol’ red-white-and-blue, while Battle Royale is *gasp* foreign.

American audiences have been conditioned to think that subtitles are only for skinny intellectuals who wear black turtlenecks and smoke clove cigarettes, and so they are ultimately suspicious of anything foreign (and by foreign, I mean non-English, because they will still go see a film like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 which has a remarkably British aftertaste), which needless to say frustrates me. In addition, Battle Royale is Japanese, and American audiences have been even further trained to think that anything from Japan is read backwards and is only enjoyed by the teen pop-goth set. And recently this might be true in a lot of cases, but one has only to travel back to the films of Kurosawa to not that Japan is not quite as bizarre as we think it is, although the nation is usually seen as strange by our standards. So if there’s anything foreign playing at the multiplex, the average American will see anything spoken in their native tongue over it.

2) The Hunger Games is directed squarely at the industry’s favorite demographic, with broad cross-over potential.

If there’s anything that can be taken away from the post-Jaws/Star Wars era of film-making, it’s that the kid is king. Until about 2007 or so that kid was the 12-year old boy, and often times he still is, but it was at this point that Stephenie Meyer’s alleged magnum opus of young-adult fiction was published, and cash began being waved in the the direction of squealing tween girls. A lot of the fire for The Hunger Games spread out of that group, eventually leading to slightly older girls and even pre-teen boys, and it soon followed the path set forth by Harry Potter and Twilight and was adopted as the official carrying card of suburban motherhood, the sacred text of book clubs across the nation. So it was obvious that The Hunger Games was a hit, because it was guaranteed to not only draw out kids but their parents as well. I probably sound like I have some serious cynical issue with The Hunger Games, and I don’t think I do, although I subconsciously may, but my issue lies with the fact that the majority of films that land at your local multiplex are not targeted at you, they are targeted at kids who are 11 and 12. When people talk about adults of the past generation not growing up and still playing video games and such, I think this is part of the problem, because there are few films actually made for adults that attract a broad audience. (But that’s an article for another time, my friends.) In addition, the film has action elements that will probably be prone to attract men, it will attract those who are proud to see a tough female heroine in a major film, and it will also draw out fans of typically non-teen film actors like Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson. So really, it is destined to be a hit.

What am I getting at here? My thesis could probably be summed up as this: The MPAA, despite what it says, is not out to protect the moral and standards of children from “corruption” or even provide information for parents about choosing the right films to take their kids to see. It is using it’s “moral crusade” as a thin disguise in its quest to assist the American film industry in racking up profits. Although I won’t go as far to suggest that these two entities are directly in bed with each other, but I’m saying that no matter what its intent is or was, the MPAA has only served to help the film industry in gaining profit. The Hunger Games and Battle Royale have an incredibly similar plot and both deal with children being forced to kill each other, and while yes, one may be more graphic than the other, it makes absolutely no sense to me why they are not both assessed on issue of theme and intent, which is an issue I will get to a little bit later when assessing the MPAA overall. Yes, Battle Royale may have not been released due to its proximity to the Columbine shootings, but does that really have anything to do with it? School shootings still happen today, and the passage of time does not justify the MPAA’s actions. The events of September 11th created a similar situation, in that many speculated whether or not films could ever contain the destruction of a large building. Anyone who’s seen Michael Bay’s zealous and almost fetishistic quest to destroy every semi-large city in the Midwest knows these prophecies did not come to pass, so this “respect” for the events at the time they occurred really only appears to be individuals biding their time until they can blow stuff up again without potentially causing any offense. In my own personal opinion, I think it’s worse to prevent a film from being released in a time of national pain because in those times we do not need blind hope or patriotism. We need to step back and say to ourselves “Why did this happen? What caused this? How can we prevent this?” We need to stop assigning blame to heavy metal and to video games, or to the fact that they are “jealous of our freedom” and our toilets flush, and we need to look, think, and reflect. And film can help us do that. If Apocalypse Now had been released during Vietnam as opposed to The Green Berets, what would have happened? It’s only a speculation, but I think we would have greater cause for change.

My issue is not with The Hunger Games or its content itself, for my crusade is not a moral one and I do not care what sort of content is placed in film as long as it serves a purpose in terms of theme, plot, environment, or character development. My issue is with the fact that the MPAA (which for those who don’t know, and hopefully all of you know, but that stands for the Motion Picture Association of America) thinks that the passage of time and the fact that The Hunger Games will without a doubt bring in lots of money justifies it not treating it and Battle Royale (although I do acknowledge that Battle Royale appears to be much, much more graphic) the same. I’m not calling for The Hunger Games to be pulled out of distribution or boycotted or anything, I am just saying that from this point on we need to begin treating all films the same regardless of timing or profit possibility.

From my assessment, the MPAA generally tends to help films that will probably bring in lots of profit for the studios by slapping them with a lower rating than they would normally give, which is shown by the MPAA’s treatment of violence. The MPAA is fairly cavalier with its rating of violence, which explains why a film like The Human Centipede is within the same ratings category as The King’s Speech or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Similarly, this also explains why the PG-13 rating is bloated with violent action pictures. These films will make money, and the MPAA doesn’t want to anger the studios by giving them a harder rating that would prevent the studios’ main target audience, young boys, from seeing them. However, films that contain sexuality are immediately slapped with an R, or worst of all, NC-17. This is my problem with the ratings system as it is, and why I think letter ratings should be done away with completely and instead replaced by a detailed description of a film’s content instead of a brief, several-word summary. The MPAA is basically saying that violence is more “okay” than sexuality or even in some cases, strong language. Now this is getting into a morally sticky area that depends upon personal preference and beliefs, but ultimately I don’t think violence is the “better” one, and I think that people should be informed of what a film contains before going into it so they can make up their mind, rather than having a very vague letter rating that contains a wide assortment of contents. Again, The Human Centipede and The King’s Speech. If a person had only a basic knowledge of the letter ratings system, they would associate these two films as both being extremely inappropriate and hardcore. However, if a content description were used, the person could realize that these two films are totally different and share absolutely no similarities in what they contain. This would place all films on an equal level, which they are not on now. As of this moment, films with a PG-13 or PG rating are usually deemed more favorable than films with an R or NC-17 label, which does not give people the opportunity to choose for themselves. They may see a film with a PG-13 label and immediately assume it is better than one with an R, while in fact the film with a PG-13 may have large amounts of violence and the R only a few uses of the f-word.

This problem extends even further to the NC-17 rating, as these films cannot play in most multiplexes, cannot be advertised for on television, and are not sold in major retail chains such as Wal-Mart. This has caused the NC-17 rating to be associated with pornography in the national consciousness, when in fact pornography is not rated at all by the MPAA and NC-17 films are usually more intellectual or psychological explorations of sexuality. And most NC-17 films are about sexuality, as a film will almost never earn an NC-17 rating for violence alone. This is not a hard and fast rule, but in most cases, it is definitely true.

One of my biggest problems with the MPAA is that it does not evaluate why a film contains certain content and its association to the theme of the film. In a film like The King’s Speech, the strong language is very brief and necessary, and the film could serve as inspiration to young children with stammers or stutters. However, because it is labeled with an R, children would definitely not be able to see it. Most children above a certain age, although their parents may refuse to believe it, hear constant swearing on a daily basis, and it will not bother them. This is a similar issue with the film Bully, released by the cult of Harvey Weinstein, which is a documentary about bullying and its effects on children. It contains a few uses of the f-word, no more than children are used to hearing in school, and it should not offend them. The film also could potentially be used as an anti-bullying statement by schools and teachers, but because of its R Rating, it certainly won’t be used for that purpose and many children who may be inspired by it will be unable to see it. The rating was appealed, to no avail, which is what usually happens when a film’s rating is appealed to the MPAA and is why many films are butchered to gain a lower rating. However, one benefit of the publicity gained because of the film’s appeal is that it has definitely raised public awareness about the film, which will probably bring in a larger audience. This causes me to wonder if the MPAA almost repeatedly gets itself into these sticky conflicts on purpose, to raise publicity and profit for films like this and The King’s Speech. Many people are not aware of these films until they hear about the appeals, so it almost serves to help the industry, again bringing us back to the main point. While this may be a bit of over-analysis on my part, I think it could be true.

Many foreign, independent, and yes, NC-17 films explore sexuality and human emotions in a more complex way than mainstream films, and the MPAA only serves to hurt them by slapping them with ratings that prevent them from being seen. While some films may contain sexuality or violence for pure thrills, others don’t, and this isn’t taken into consideration. Similarly, the MPAA has begun rating films based on whether they contain images of people smoking or not, and it does this with no consideration of why a film may contain such images. Some films may need smoking to create the credible feel of a historical period or era, while others may contain pervasive and gratuitous smoking for no reason, so it is necessary that the ratings board consider why a film contains what it does.

The MPAA has continually shown its bias toward commercially-viable films over and over again, from the Scary Movie/Orgazmo debacle to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, which is further proof that it is a useless organization when it comes to rating films. Despite what it may seem, it has no interest in protecting morals or providing information to parents so they can make choices; rather, it is only interested in helping the film industry machine at large by creating publicity and dragging in more profits. It’s time for a new ratings system, one that provides explanations of a film’s content and how it relates to a film’s theme, rather than broad and extremely vague letters and numbers.

– Nathan

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8 thoughts on “Hunger Pains: My Problem With the MPAA and Its Ratings System

  1. Nirvana says:

    While I agree with most everything in this post you forgot the most basic issue – that, films are often given inappropriate ratings by the MPAA to reach their target demographic. A good example is Green Lantern, which came out in 2011. The movie itself had only very mild violence, absolutely no sexual scenes, and only around 4 instances of profanity. The only reason it got a PG-13 rating instead of a PG rating is so that teenagers wouldn’t be skeptical about watching it thinking it’s a “kids” movie (Most movies for children are rated PG or G).

    • nathan1138 says:

      I definitely agree, but at the same time, most people who would enjoy a serious and intellectually/psychologically-compelling drama probably wouldn’t consider themselves the NC-17 “demographic”, so I think the MPAA (and the film industry as a whole, as they no longer put emphasis on making films for adults) has really failed when it comes to serious films for adutlts.

  2. Ethan Black says:

    Just a comment on the morality from the friendly neighborhood athiest, other than straight vulgarity and bloodiness, the moral lessons present in both are much more toned down in the Hunger Games. From what i know of them (which is very little, and I may be wrong on this) the hunger games is in part about survival, in that the characters, looking for their own saftey, kill with little to no remorse, and violence is often implied. Conversely, In Battle Royale, yes, the scenes are significantly more brutal, but they serve a purpose to exemplify the horrors that the characters visibly go through. Now, I play video games on a extremely regular basis, and i am not generally afraid of them making children more violent, but this actually scares me. To teach kids that is okay to kill others just like you to keep yourself alive is not a lesson to be taught. Its the complete opposite of the boat scene in the dark knight. So now we have proof, comic book movies are better than novel movies.

    • nathan1138 says:

      I also think that Battle Royale seems to to use the violence as almost a metaphor for the relationships between teenagers and high-school life in general, as cliques and crushes are very important to the survival of characters in it, but in The Hunger Games, it is mostly for entertainment purposes. Similarly, Battle Royale serves as a more specific examination of modern culture, whereas The Hunger Games criticizes the broad themes (mass media, government corruption) that post-apocalyptic young adult novels often pretend to tackle, and by pretend I mean that they obviously bring them up, yet they don’t get specific and the typical love triangle is more important than any satire or social commentary. So I think the violence in Battle Royale is less for entertainment purposes, therefore making it more “moral”.

      • Isn’t that the very crux of what’s going on in The Hunger Games though? The fact that these characters kill without remorse and on a freaking tv show is a commentary on how our society has become desensitized to and even excited by violence. It actually lines up pretty nicely with one of the points you make about sexuality being more taboo than violence.

    • nathan1138 says:

      Yes, but at the same time I feel like it takes a backseat to the love triangle, as the target audience (teenagers) is more invested in that than the actual message of the film/book.

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