Censorship: should the Ridley Scott film Hannibal have been given an R classification?
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Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 07
The Ridley Scott film Hannibal was originally given an MA classification by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) prior to its screening in Australia. The OFLC had voted four to one to give Hannibal an MA rating.
This classification allowed for the film to be seen by children under 15 in the company of an adult and independently by children over 15.
The Queensland Censorship Minister, Judy Spence, requested that the OFLC decision be reviewed. The federal Attorney-General was then legally obliged to refer the request for a review to the Classification Review Board.
The Classification Review Board upheld the challenge to the original classification and reclassified the film R. An R classification restricts the film to an audience whose members are 18 years or older.
The debate surrounding the original classification of the film and the effectiveness of the OFLC continues.
What they said ...
'I'll concede that the censors have justifiable grounds for giving it [Hannibal] an MA'
Leigh Paatsch, Herald Sun film critic
'... the nice people at Hoyts or Village will be only too happy to take your youngsters' money and rape their minds with this horror [Hannibal]'
Andrew Bolt, a commentator for The Herald Sun
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
The classification MA means 'mature accompanied'. Under this classification a film may be viewed by children under 15 if accompanied by an adult. Children 15 to 17 can view a film with an MA classification by themselves, without an adult accompanying them in the cinema.
With regard to violence, the guidelines for an MA classification state:
Depictions should not have a high impact. Depictions with high impact should be infrequent and not prolonged or gratuitous.
Realistic treatments may contain detailed depictions, but these should not be prolonged.
Depictions of violence in stylised treatments may be more detailed and more frequent than depictions of violence in close to real life situations or in realistic treatments if this does not increase the impact.
Visual suggestions of sexual violence are permitted only if they are not frequent, prolonged or exploitative.
The MA classification was introduced in 1991 to allow for the screening of the film 'Silence of the Lambs'. 'Hannibal', made ten years later, is the sequel to 'Silence of the Lambs'.
The classification R means 'restricted'. Under this classification a film can only be viewed by an audience made up of people 18 years or older.
With regard to violence, depictions that are excessive will not be permitted.
Strong depictions of realistic violence may be shown but depictions with a high degree of impact should not be gratuitous or exploitative.
Sexual violence may only be implied and should not be detailed.
Sexual violence must not be frequent, gratuitous or exploitative.
Gratuitous, exploitative or offensive depictions of cruelty or real violence will not be permitted.
Films are also classified according to coarse language, sex, drug use and adult themes.
The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification can be found at http://www.oflc.gov.au/
Included in the Latest News section are the most recent Attorney-General's Department news release on the film Hannibal, the Classification Board's original decision on the film Hannibal and the Classification Review Board judgement reclassifing Hannibal as R18+.
(Please note, much of the information on this site is available only in pdf format and can only be read or downloaded using Adobe Acrobat Reader.)
The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (No. 7 of 1995) came into force on 1 January 1996.The Act is the Commonwealth's contribution to a new cooperative classification scheme which has been agreed upon by the Commonwealth, States and Territories.
The full Act including the classifications it gives to different types of literature, film and computer games can be found at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/cfacga1995489/
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received a complaint in February 1995 about the airing of the motion picture 'Silence of the Lambs' on CITY-TV.
The letter complained principally that the film depicted unacceptable violence against women and generally that "the subject matter, unspeakable horror and grotesque violence contained in 'Silence of the Lambs', makes it completely unsuitable for airing on a non-discretionary basis over our public airwaves."
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council defended the screening. Its detailed judgement can be found at
The ruling includes an interesting discussion of the content of the film, the impact of its theme and storyline and and a definition of 'gratuitous violence'.
Arguments in favour of the film Hannibal receiving an MA classification
1. The violence in the film is not frequent, prolonged or gratuitous.
This argument relates directly to the guidelines the OFLC censors use to classify films.
Under these guidelines, film depictions of violence 'with high impact should be infrequent and not prolonged or gratuitous'.
Mr Des Clark, the head of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, has claimed that the high impact violence in Hannibal was 'brief in a film of 131 minutes'.
This view is a defence of the film against accusations that its violence is frequent or prolonged.
Thus, Philippa Hawker, a critic for The Age, has commented, 'The majority of Lecter's murders take place ... off the screen: they are in the past, they are the stuff of legend, speculation and recorded speech.' Such views would appear to suggest that much of the violence in the film is implied rather than explicitly depicted and so the film should not have received an R classification.
With regard to gratuitousness, it is claimed that the violence in the film is an essential element of its theme and storyline and thus is not merely there to titillate its audience. (Violence is regarded as gratuitous if it serves no purpose in a film other than to excite an audience. Non-gratuitous violence, on the other hand, is violence that is required by the demands of the film's situation and storyline. Thus, violence in a war film would probably not be regarded as gratuitous as it would be difficult to make a realistic war film that did not contain a significant element of violence.)
It has been argued that a film dealing with a cannibalistic serial killer would necessarily contain violence and therefore that such content is unlikely to be gratuitous.
2. The violence in the film is stylised
This defence of the MA rating also relates to the guidelines the OFLC censors use to classify films.
Under these guidelines for an MA classification, 'Depictions of violence in stylised treatments may be more detailed and more frequent than depictions of violence in close to real life situations ...'
Behind this guideline would appear to be the belief that violence that is presented in a manner that is obviously not intended to be realistic is less disturbing to an audience.
The Herald Sun's film critic, Leigh Paatsch, has noted (without clearly endorsing the position) '... in Hannibal's case ... the ritual disembowelment of one of the title character's victims is permissible because of its "stylised treatment".'
Leigh Paatsch has further noted, 'I'll concede that the censors have justifiable grounds for giving it [Hannibal] an MA.'
3. The film is in some measure a comedy; it is not seriously intended to frighten and so its violence is unlikely to disturb most viewers.
A number of critics have suggested that Hannibal is more of a black comedy than it is a serious horror movie.
Christopher Tookey, the film critic for the Daily Mail, has made this point. Mr Tookey has described Hannibal as the 'There's Something About Mary of serial killer movies.' Mr Tookey has stated, 'We've had women-in-peril movies. Now meet the serial-killer-in-peril movie.
Another critic has been reported as saying, 'It isn't really a horror movie at all. It's a black comedy filled with tension, which turns ultra-camp.'
British novelist, Will Self, has further stated, 'Watching Tony Hopkins ham it up for the cameras, the audience guffawing as he juxtaposes corny quips and precision eviscerations, I was struck by how cartoon-like Lector had become.'
Referring to the much criticised brain eating sequence that ends the film, Philippa Hawker, a critic for The Age, has commented, 'It's ... a kind of camp and comic cannibalism that is more repellent on the page than the screen.'
According to those who see Hannibal in an essentially humorous light, such a film does not warrant an R classification.
4. The film requires an adult to supervise those under 15 and carries an additional warning "high level violence"
According to this line of argument, the film has not been classified in a way that makes it available unrestrictedly to minors. Instead those under 15 can only view the film if accompanied by an adult. Further, it has been noted, the supervising adult has been given clear warning of the nature of the film.
Mr Des Clark, the head of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, has claimed, 'Parents can make a balanced decision based on the warnings.'
With regard to the warnings, Mr Clark has noted that Hannibal carries the warning 'high level violence'.
5. The OFLC's judgements reflect those of the general community.
Mr Des Clark, the head of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, has also claimed that the film classification board's decisions were generally in line with the views of focus groups and with current community values.
Mr Clark has stated, 'There is a high level of consistency in this regard.'
According to this line of argument it is not reasonable to criticise the judgements of the film classification board when those judgements are in accord with popular viewpoints.
It is further noted that it is the role of the board to reflect such community values, thus, it is claimed, while it is reflecting community standards it should not be criticised.
It is further noted that proof of its success in reflecting the views of the community is the popularity of films such as Hannibal. The implication would appear to be that if Hannibal did not have a large measure of popular acceptance it would not have attracted the large audiences that it has.
Arguments against the film Hannibal receiving an MA classification
1. Hannibal contains scenes unsuitable for supervised children under 15
It has been claimed that some of the scenes within Hannibal are sufficiently disturbing to be unsuitable for the viewing of children even if accompanied by their parents.
Those who object to Hannibal receiving an MA classification claim that this is potentially an extremely distressing film and they are concerned that not all parents will show sufficient discernment to protect their children from it.
Those who have voiced this concern refer to scenes from the film showing disembowelling and various types of human flesh being consumed either by human beings or by animals. They claim that even with their parents in attendance such scenes are not appropriate to be viewed by children under 15.
Andrew Bolt, a commentator for The Herald Sun, has stressed the relative innocence of those under 15 and their probable inability to come to terms with the sort of violence depicted in Hannibal.
Mr Bolt refers to a child of ten as 'still young enough to believe the world is wonderful and magical, and nightmares always end when you wake.' According to Mr Bolt it should not be in the hands of parents to allow children under 15 to view a film such as Hannibal.
Those with this view stress the role of the OFLC as a body that can prevent a film being shown to certain audiences.
An R rating takes the judgement out of the hands of parents and stops a film being viewed by anyone who is not at least legally an adult.
2. The film contains scenes unsuitable for young people aged between 15 and 17
It has further been argued that Hannibal contains scenes that it is not appropriate be viewed by a majority of young people aged between 15 and 18.
The MA classification allows any young person 15 or over to view a film without the presence or permission of a responsible adult. Compared to an R classification, it lowers by three years the age at which a young person can view a potentially distressing film.
Critics of Hannibal receiving an MA rather than an R classification argue that scenes showing disembowelling and various types of human flesh being consumed either by human beings or by animals are not suitable for young people in the 15 to 17 age group.
Critics of the MA rating argue that people between 15 and 17 are likely to have their curiosity aroused by the type of violence reputed to be depicted in the film yet are unlikely to have the judgement or maturity to deal with such scenes once they have purchased their ticket and taken their seats in the cinema.
Andrew Bolt, a commentator for The Herald Sun, has made this point. Mr Bolt has stated, '... Hannibal is ... what any child of 15 could see today, legally and without their parents' permission, at any multiplex.
Yes, the nice people at Hoyts or Village will be only too happy to take your youngsters' money and rape their minds with this horror.'
3. An MA rating for Hannibal is out of touch with community standards
Criticism of the MA rating for Hannibal was made by a number of community groups.
The president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, Mr Rodney Molesworth, has stated that he found an MA classification for Hannibal hard to understand.
The national secretary of the Australian Family Association, Mr Bill Muehlenberg, has also criticised the MA rating originally given to Hannibal and has stated that the decision suggests a decline in the standards being applied by the OFLC.
It has further been suggested that some of the values that inform the decisions of the OFLC are not shared by a majority of the Australian public.
Andrew Bolt, a commentator for The Herald Sun, has quoted a former member of the OFLC who has stated that a film showing someone eating the brain of 'a much loved pet would have been much higher in impact' than Hannibal where the brain of a character the audience is not meant to sympathise with is eaten.
Andrew Bolt describes the former board member's judgement in this situation as showing a 'bizarre priority of values'.
4. Censorship board classifications are supposed to act as a guide to potential viewers and parents
Critics of the initial OFLC rating of Hannibal have argued that the MA classification the film at first received does not indicate clearly enough to any potential viewer the nature of the material it contains.
The Australian in its editorial of February 9, 2001, has stated, 'We particularly support the idea that classification gives parents guidance on what they what they may want their children to watch - or not.'
Critics of the original classification have argued that an MA rating actually suggests that Hannibal is suitable viewing for young people over 15 and potentially suitable viewing by children under 15.
5. The OFLC's guidelines are inconsistent and need to be reviewed
Many critics of the OFLC's initial ruling on Hannibal have argued that the fault lies not so much with the board as with the guidelines that shape its decisions.
Leigh Paatsch, film critic for the Herald Sun, has made this point. Mr Paatsch has stated, '... it looks as if Hannibal does indeed fit the requirements of the muddled, labyrinthine guidelines the OFLC uses to assess each film on its merits.'
Other commentators have been more specific in their criticisms of the guidelines followed by the OFLC.
The Age, in its editorial of February 15, 2001, has suggested that the guidelines are far more restrictive in their approach to sexually explicit films than they are in their approach to violent films.
The editorial has stated, 'This is not the first time that the CRB (Classification Review Board) has treated a film of extreme violence differently from one that carries strong erotic content.'
It has also been claimed that the classification guidelines, as they apply to violence, are contradictory and difficult to apply. It has been suggested that the guidelines allow young people to see films that the board's declared objectives would appear to prohibit.
This point was made in an editorial published in The Australian on February 9, 2001. The editorial highlights supposed inconsistencies in the guidelines. The editorial quotes the guidelines that state that MA+ films are 'likely to be harmful or disturbing to viewers under 15.' The editorial then asks 'So why are minors allowed in?'
The matter of how the Ridley Scott film Hannibal will be classified seems to have been resolved. There appears to be general community acceptance of the R rating as an acceptable classification for this film. What appear to remain at issue are the guidelines the OFLC used to give the film its original MA classification.
The prevailing view seems to be that the guidelines do in fact support the original MA classification. Thus the general dissatisfaction with this classification as applied to Hannibal has now become an attack on the guidelines themselves. There appears to be a growing concern that the guidelines allow some levels of violence to be classified too leniently.
Among the questions being asked are whether films depicting strong violence should be able to be shown to children under 15, irrespective of whether they are in the company of an adult. Also of concern is whether young people between 15 and 17 should be able to view films depicting strong violence.
Other grounds for unease are the classification terms themselves. What has emerged from the Hannibal debate is the suggestion that stylised depictions of violence can, in some circumstances, have as strong an impact as more realistic depictions. There is also concern that in some instances even depictions of violence that are relatively infrequent can be highly disturbing.
Criticisms of the guidelines are likely to continue. A couple more MA ratings that are popularly regarded as too lenient are likely to lead to serious calls for the guidelines to be reviewed. As the MA classification was introduced only ten years ago, in response to the need for a suitable classification for films such as The Silence of the Lambs, it is possible that the terms of the classification will be altered.
Finally, there remains the issue of how sexually explicit films will be classified. Most recent disputes over OFLC classifications have involved criticisms that films such as Romance have been classified too restrictively because of concerns about their sexual content. There appears to be a growing view that sexually explicit films are classified more conservatively than those with explicit violence. The popular preference would appear to be for the reverse.
The Age, in its editorial of February 15, 2001, summed up the situation in this manner, 'This is an inequitable system - make war, not love, seems to be the motto here - that is too inflexible to allow for proper discernment on behalf of age.'
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $27.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
10/2/01 page 9 news item, 'Eros slams Hannibal's MA rating'
13/2/01 page 1 (Today section) analysis by Philippa Hawker, 'The doctor is in'
14/2/01 page 3 news item by Kerry Taylor, 'Minister gets on Hannibal's case'
15/2/01 page 14 editorial, 'Hannibal is out of step'
17/2/01 page 12 comment by Elissa Blake, 'Hannibal's horror: it's just a question of impact'
23/2/01 page 3 news item by Kerry Taylor, 'Hannibal gets a tougher rating'
1/3/01 page 14 letter from Brett Anderson, 'Hannibal shows need for new movie rating'
9/2/01 page 3 news item by Lynden Barber, 'Censor stands by Hannibal rating'
9/2/01 page 12 editorial, 'Censors wrong on Hannibal rating'
14/2/01 page 11 analysis by Juliet Herd, 'It's so grotesque that they're rolling in the aisles'
16/2/01 page 15 comment by Lynden Barber, 'No sex, please, but savagery is kosher'
17/2/01 page 4 (Review section) analysis by Shane Danielsen, 'More, please'
23/2/01 page 3 news item by Iain Shedden and Jane Albert, 'R is for revieew in Hannibal's case'
27/2/01 page 17 comment by Stephen Romei, 'Brain-eating censors miss the main course'
28/2/01 page 3 news item by Lynden Barber, 'New rating cannibalises Hannibal profits'
5/3/01 page 3 comment by Frank Devine, 'Bilious after-effects of our hunger for Hannibal'
The Herald Sun
9/2/01 page 13 news item by Ian Royall, 'Too easy on cannibal gore'
9/2/01 page 13 comment by Leigh Paastch, 'Fine line between good and bad taste'
9/2/01 page 18 editorial, 'Diet of violence'
22/2/01 page 18 comment by Andrew Bolt, 'Censors allow producers and some parents to pollute the minds of our children'