Mortal Instruments: Why Film Ratings Aren't Working

15:07Ciaran McCormick

Recently, I went to see the new film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones with a group of friends. I tend to not think about film classifications too much since most of the films that I am interested in rarely have excesses of violence or horror. However, we were accompanied by a 12 year old in the film.


The basic plot of Mortal Instruments is that there are a group of Shadow Hunters that protect the world from all manner of demons, vampires and other monsters. Our protagonist Clary finds out she is linked to this hidden world and fights alongside the Shadow Hunters. To be honest, I spent much of the film laughing at the ludicrously wooden script, the gaping
plot holes and the rip-offs of most other fantasy films. However, with the scenes of violence and moderate horror in the film, our 12 year old guest was absolutely terrified. It made me think about the system of film classification we use. In my opinion, the way that the British Board of Film Classification regulates cinema is far too lenient. It has been mentioned to me by older people that films rated suitable for young audiences would never have been tolerated in years gone by.

Mortal Instruments is rated 12A in cinemas, meaning it is suitable for those of 12 years, but younger children may see it if they are accompanied by an adult. The obvious emphasis here is on the different rates of maturity of different children and their reaction to strong content, so that those that know them can make a judgement call. However, I do not believe that it deserves a 12 rating. It had intense scenes of fantasy violence, action and horror and sustained threat to the characters. The BBFC places a lot of emphasis on the context of all violence and horror but even if it is fantasy, this does not justify allowing more visceral content into the film. The fact that it had a Twilight-esque romance arc means it will attract a younger audience, which should be a factor in the context. Indeed, the conditions of a cinema are very different to watching it at home for a child. It is in unfamiliar surroundings, in the dark, with booming sound deliberately engineered in post-production to be powerful and on a large screen. Horror is going to be more horrifying and violence more violent. However, it is possible to watch the film with an adult at any age, even if you cannot purchase it to watch in a milder home setting.

Parents are encouraged to visit the BBFC website and read up on the specific guidelines on any film they have concerns about for their children. For this film, this is an excerpt of what they mention

'The film contains several scenes in which the young heroes fight fantastical creatures. These include battles with vampires and flaming demons. In one of these battles a man is stabbed in the back with a claw, which is briefly shown emerging from his chest. There are also occasional scenes in which human characters fight each other. In one of these, a man who is restrained in a chair is repeatedly punched in the face.'

Whilst this seems shocking enough to pass as suitable for 12 year olds, and even possibly younger, it does not even come close to representing the intensity of the fighting scenes and the monsters. To be fair, this is no horror film and there is no gore or violence that you would find in an 18 rated film. But if it is considered from the perspective of the continuum between Parental Guidance, 12 and 15, then I think it is too lenient.

One of the problems is that big-budget films appealing to a broad audience would be doomed to failure if they got a 15 rating. Many films that are deemed too scary for a 12 rating are given a menu of cuts to make that reduce the impact of particular stabbings or to cut an f-word or two. However, this does not affect the tone of these films, which remains at a level too scary for the 12 rating it is given.

I looked at the general rules issued by the BBFC and they give a lot of examples of things that can be a 12 film as long as they are not glorified or in an especially bad context. Some examples:

  • ' The BBFC's Guidelines state that there may be strong language (eg 'f***') at 12 or 12A, but it must be infrequent'
  • 'occasional gory moments may be permitted if they can be justified by their context
  • 'Yes, some horror films are passed at this category. Moderate physical and psychological threat is permitted at 12 or 12A as long as disturbing sequences are not too frequent or sustained.'
  •  Dangerous behaviour (for example hanging, suicide and self-harming) may be present in 12 or 12A works but will not dwell on detail 


 I find it appalling that the society in which we live thinks it acceptable that a 12 year old is desensitised enough to the world to be able to see or purchase a film with gore, horror, suicide and self-harm. Fair enough, many children have been brought up having been shown films with 15 or 18 ratings but this does not excuse the classification system. I think it needs a lot more subtlety than just a couple of discrete, arbitrary age limits.

These classification guidelines contrast with many historical examples. There are undoubtedly many films that people believe should have been given a higher or lower rating. One of the classic examples, though, is Gremlins. This existed before the 12 rating and was given a 15 age limit. It is not terrifying by todays standards, even if there are a couple of mild shiver moments. Today, though, we stretch the boundaries of offensiveness in the violence and horror we produce in cinemas. Far be it from anyone to judge the entertainment habits of others but when we produce a horror film like 'The Conjuring', given an R rating in America based on its tone alone, I am worried. Particularly relevant examples are 'The Woman In Black' and 'The Dark Knight'. These were given much-criticised 12 ratings, which parents felt did not reflect the content in the films that was unsuitable for children. I do not want to wrap kids in cotton wool, but I feel like that the priorities have been misplaced. Film producers are more concerned with getting a 12 rating than ensuring their film's tone and content is appropriate. Being in a  film with a younger child opened my eyes to issues I have never previously considered.

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1 comments

  1. The idea of a 14 year-old not being legally allowed to watch The Dark Knight is laughable. I used to watch films that were rated above my age all the time and I was never negatively effected. If a 12-year old is in the small minority likely to be negatively effected then they, or the parents, should exercise some judgement about what kind of films they should watch, not be outlawed by society. Film ratings should be looked at more as guidelines than binding, sacrosanct verdicts on what society thinks is and isn't acceptable for people of certain ages to view. What about when it comes to factually-based films, such as those portraying wars or genocides? do we make sure that 12, 13, 14-year olds can see nothing of such realities?

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