British Board of Film Classification

Quick search of releases

Advanced search

War of the Worlds: Controversy and the 12A

How the BBFC justified the film's 12A rating - to those who complained about it.

Date 03/11/2005

The classification awarded to a film by the BBFC can have an impact on success at the UK box office, a factor well known to distributors and filmmakers. Many of last summer’s blockbuster movies were marketed specifically at the lucrative 12A audience, including eagerly awaited prequels Batman Begins and Star Wars Episode 3 – The Revenge of the Sith and futuristic thriller The Island.

There were some notable exceptions, such as the PG rated The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which contained mild language and moderate fantasy horror, and superhero adventure, The Fantastic Four.

Of those works which arrived at the BBFC with a 12A request, none was more controversial than Stephen Spielberg’s big budget adaptation of H.G.Wells’ novel, War Of The Worlds, which has prompted over 60 letters from the public to date, many newspaper column inches and a question raised in parliament.

The sci-fi adventure starred Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning as a father and daughter trying to escape from New York after aliens invade earth. It received a PG-13 from the American ratings organisation, the MPAA, (the Motion Picture Association of America), and the distributor was keen to receive the near-equivalent advisory category - 12A - in the UK.

It was viewed here by a team of examiners as well as BBFC Director, David Cooke. Though some felt it was a ‘high end’ 12A because of sustained scenes of menace, threat and moderate horror, after due consideration it was awarded a 12A - on the understanding that these issues would be mentioned in robust Consumer Advice (now known as BBFCinsight).

Factors cited by examiners in support of the 12A included the 'clearly fantasy' nature of the plot, the reassuring ending and the lack of detail in the violent scenes. They also noted that some high profile ‘end of the world’ and disaster films have been passed out at 12 and 12A, examples including Titanic, The Perfect Storm, Armageddon, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Similarly, child characters have featured in dangerous and threatening scenarios in countless 12A level films that include Signs, The Others and the most recent Harry Potter outing, The Goblet of Fire.

Nevertheless some members of the public, (including parents who took children to see it and younger viewers who went without accompaniment), wrote to the BBFC to air concerns about the decision. Many said they thought it was wrongly placed at a category which technically allows very young children to view it. In response the Board explained that no-one younger than 12 may see a 12A film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult, and that responsibility for allowing under-12s to view lies firmly with that adult. The category was formulated following public consultation in which many parents expressed a desire to make their own decisions regarding their children’s viewing.

Examiners responding to the letters also pointed out that the strongest issues were raised in the Consumer Advice, displayed on posters for the films, online and on newspaper listings. This advice is available for all films and provides clear, concise information on the work’s defining classification issues.

The classification also resulted in significant media attention. Much discussion appeared in the national press – ranging from strong defences of the BBFC’s decision, to outraged disbelief from those convinced the film was far too strong for younger viewers. Some columnists even campaigned for individual examiners ‘responsible’ for the decision to be ‘named and shamed’ and a question, to that effect, was asked in Parliament.

Like the BBFC’s own official statement, the response of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport noted that although the Board is committed to open decision making, the anonymity of examiners is something it has the right to roundly defend. This is because all decisions made are group ones, based on published guidelines and approved by members of the directorial tier including Director David Cooke, whose name appears on the BBFC certificate that is seen prior to the theatrical screening of every film in the UK.

Share this!

Facebook logo Twitter logo