The PG-13 Curse

October 28, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the beginning, the MPAA's decision to introduce a PG-13 rating seemed like a good idea - a compromise between the PG and R to accommodate movies that were a little too "course" for the family friendly PG rating without condemning them to exclusive viewing by a mature audience. Little did I imagine back in the early '80s what the eventual repercussions would be for the movie industry as a whole. Now, nearly every film wants to be a PG-13. Because there are no official age limits to the classification (the tag advises caution for children under 13 but makes not mandates), everyone can enter as a paying customer. That creates a situation in which PG-13 movies are magnets for teenagers. With multiplexes becoming increasingly adult-unfriendly, that makes teenagers the lifeblood of the movie industry, thereby resulting in PG-13 movies becoming most lucrative product.

What is needed to get a PG-13? Generally speaking, start with something R rated, then cut most of the coarse profanity. Limit the blood and gore. There can be lots of violence and killing but it must be bloodless. Be careful about nudity. Bare bums are allowed but one has to be careful with nipples. Teenage boys, sheltered as they are in this era of free porn on the Internet, might be damaged if they saw such a thing.

Over the years, I have watched with increasing discomfort as the number of PG-13 "horror" movies have been on the rise. (Much as I dislike "torture porn," I'm strangely relieved that not all horror films have gone the PG-13 route. It's almost refreshing to know that orgasmic violence still exists.) By its very nature, horror should be primarily for adults. Watering it down so that children can see it is not an answer, nor is it even a good idea for the movie or the children. (Sorry to all those teenagers who read this column and fervently disagree with me.) Most PG-13 horror movies are not scary or gross or much of anything. They are pale imitations of what they might have been. They are bland and neutered. To get a PG-13, a director has to step on eggshells or pull his punches.

Live Free or Die Hard was released with a PG-13 over the cries of protest from fans. At the time, the producers assured us that nothing would be lost in the translation and that the first three Die Hards were pretty much PG-13 anyway. Bullshit. (That is, by the way, a PG-13 term. I still get one use of the "f word" before this turns into an R column. Bullshit, however, can be used as many times as I want to use it. And when discussing the MPAA and its ratings, I feel like using it a lot.) So we end up with a lot less blood and graphic violence and the tag line is censored by a bullet going off right in the middle of a naughty word. Why not just use a "bleep"? Now, surprise, surprise, there's an "unrated" version coming out on DVD. Want to bet there will be a little more violence and maybe some profanity in that? (Although, considering what a sham/scam "unrated" titles have become, maybe that's not a safe wager to make.)

The whole reason for writing this isn't to re-hash the injustices of the past, but to discuss one of the near future. I'm referring to Beowulf, the computer-enhanced version of the Olde English epic poem. Around the time that 300 became such a massive and unexpected hit, I can recall the producers of Beowulf talking about how much the fans of 300 were going to love their film. It would have all the same elements, they claimed. Later, reliable rumors indicated that an NC-17 cut of the movie existed but would likely be held back for the DVD. All of these clues pointed to a nice, hard R-rated saga filled with copious nudity and bloodletting. After all, those are elements that helped make <>300 so delicious. So what rating has Beowulf garnered? A PG-13. So much for the movie having "all the same" elements as 300. But, hey, at least the teenagers can see it. (Actually, they were seeing 300 - they just weren't paying for it. Sneaking in is a multiplex epidemic.)

Pardon me for sounding petty, but I want my R-rated Beowulf. I don't like feeling that my movie-going experience has been hijacked by a studio more concerned about maximizing the teenage audience than keeping content uncensored. Cut out all of the sex, nudity, and hyper-violence from 300, and what are you left with? Something that's less visceral and less memorable in many ways. It would not have energized audiences in the same fashion or to the same degree. Some movies need adult content to be effective. There are plenty of legitimate PG-13 movies out there. There's no reason why subjects, themes, and ideas that should be adult in nature have to be emasculated to the point where they are available to everyone. The only ones to whom that makes sense are the accountants, and I hate the idea of them controlling what I see.

Will I enjoy the theatrical cut of Beowulf? At this point, I can't say. But if it's missing something, a little part of me will mourn what might have been.