Reviews > Culture

Rating the ratings

Culture | When "R" is appropriate

Issue: "Lord of the box office," Jan. 11, 2003

As all parents know, there are some things that should just not be talked about where little ears can hear. Such "adult only" conversations are by no means necessarily bad. They just deal with subjects children are too young to face (the possibility that grandma might have cancer), have no business hearing (their parents' marital relationship), or just cannot grasp and have no interest in (the latest political news).

By the same token, having "adult only" movies would make sense. The irony is that "adult only" movies-like "adult bookstores" and "the adult entertainment industry"-have become associated with the most un-adult behavior imaginable. A mature approach to sex, for example, would have to do with marriage and procreation, not juvenile voyeurism. Adults, as responsible members of society, see violence as something that must be controlled-by lawful violence, if need be-not as recreational sadomasochism.

An R-rated movie often contains imagery that adults have no business seeing either. And yet, some R-rated movies-such as To End All Wars-may not be for children but are very much worth seeing for adults.

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The problem with the rating system is that it mechanically counts incidents of violence, nudity, and bad language. But it says nothing about what the movie means and its effect upon its viewers.

Some movies create fantasies in the imagination of their viewers-whether of sex or violence or pride or covetousness or some other vice-that are sinful. Others present vice in such a way that it becomes abhorrent, that it makes a person less likely to want to commit that sin. Both the pro-sin and the anti-sin picture may end up with the same rating.

Since the rating board pays no attention to what a movie means, some movies that would be problematic for Christian parents end up with a mild rating. The Lion King, for example, rates a wholesome G. And yet, what about its New Age messages? Which can have the greatest negative impact on a child, seeing Frodo in danger in a PG-13 Two Towers or buying into the pop-paganism of attractive cuddly characters the child can relate to?

To End All Wars is indeed extremely violent. Since its whole theme has to do with faith enduring suffering, the more intense the suffering-in tortures, torments, executions -the more powerfully the faith come across. But nothing could be further from R-rated shows that glorify killing or even shows with a lighter rating aimed directly at teenagers that feature the joys of stealing cars and dealing drugs.

Similarly, the nudity of the concentration camp victims in Schindler's List is the farthest thing from erotic. Their nakedness is a shocking sign of their humiliation at the hands of evil men. Schindler's List deserved an R rating for its violence as well, but the effect of the movie was to create compassion in the hearts of its viewers.

What about bad language? Christians should not use bad language, but hearing bad language does not seem to be sinful in itself. And by biblical standards, the sexual and bodily-function words that earn the most restrictive ratings, while being vulgar and offensive, are not as intrinsically sinful as the casual taking of the Lord's name in vain, which ratings boards do not consider bad enough to bleep out of family TV shows.

Since the ratings do not give much useful information about whether a movie or TV show is appropriate, what should parents do? In general, R-rated fare is not appropriate for children, but it might be appropriate for adults. PG-13 and PG do require parental guidance, as do G movies. Beyond that, they should read the reviews and make informed, considered judgments.

It is not relativistic to acknowledge that different children, for example, may react in different ways to a particular movie. Many older children will love and be inspired by The Two Towers, with all of its orcs, wargs, and epic battles. Children who are plagued by nightmares, though, may find it way too scary. Parents have to be the guides.

If Christian adults avoid R-rated films completely, on principle, apart from their meaning and effect, they may be left with children's fare that refuses to grapple with serious issues. As Jack Hafer, the producer of To End All Wars, told WORLD, "I want to make important films-films that matter. And the recent films that matter, that are culture-shaping films, have been R-rated-Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Shawshank Redemption, Amistad, The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking, etc.

"Films that are important are going to be given an R, and the church can't afford to ignore them," he said. "The church needs to be a part of the Great Conversation," which is largely carried on today in movies. "We cannot afford to be left out of the Conversation, but must have our influence being felt in culture in a way that is normal and natural, not just by boycotting [R-rated films]. Otherwise we're not taken seriously."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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