When is it right to say enough Hollywood violence is enough?

The depiction of violence in Hollywood films is as old as the industry itself. D.W Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of a Nation was not only a work that defined the early western genre but also contained scenes of violence that were quite shocking for the time.

To counter this, film censorship boards were created by governments around the globe to try to ensure that content was suitable for audiences. These censorship boards were tasked with creating guidelines as to what content was acceptable and what wasn’t. All aspects of films were scrutinized from swearing, violence, sexual content, and even political leanings. Due to differing values around the world, certain content might pass the censors in one country but fail in another.

Every country in the world has and continues to try to regulate the amount of violence in films. Many countries such as India sought to heavily censor violence in the early days of the film industry. Others like America and Hong Kong used violence as an integral part of the stories that they had to tell.

Indeed, despite its censorship board, it was the United States film industry that continued to test the boundaries of what was acceptable viewing. In the early days, it was the western and the gangster film that would be responsible for much of the Hollywood violence audiences would see onscreen. Directors such as Sam Peckinpah and D. Howard Hughes, like many other directors of the age would produce works that would test the boundaries of censorship.

Things get a little hotter

It was the coming of age of the action film in the 1980’s that would really see Hollywood ratchet up the violence to levels that could never have passed the censors only a decade or two before. Films like Scarface, Die Hard, Predator and Rambo would make graphic scenes of ultra-violence that included decapitations, body mutilation, and high body counts the norm.

When Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough film Reservoir Dogs exploded onto the silver screen, the level of graphic Hollywood violence leapt considerably. The film’s depiction of torture and mutilation caused uproar within certain social groups in the United States. Many people protested that such scenes should never be allowed for mass viewing, despite the film as being labeled as only suitable for adults. So fierce was the criticism that director Tarantino now regularly refuses to answer interview questions on the subject.

Bring in the kids

In recent years, the use of such extreme graphic violence has shifted away from the action film to the horror genre. Hollywood films such as the Saw series and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake have been filled with violence which was not tolerated a few decades ago.

This change came about after Hollywood studios began to take notice of an interesting new approach by fast food companies like MacDonald’s. These fast food chains were focusing all of their efforts in attracting children to their stores, knowing that they would require a parent to bring them there. This model meant increased revenues and was something that Hollywood certainly didn’t miss noticing.

Hollywood was able to combine the emerging comic book action genre with a new type of toned down violence that was able to pass relaxed censorship laws. This meant many of these films were given PG-13 ratings and were therefore deemed suitable for some children. Films such as Ironman and Batman vs. Superman would all be built around the studios desire to gain access to younger audiences.

Back in 2008, an article appeared in the Guardian newspaper that questioned whether Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight was suitable for children. The film had just received a 12-A rating in the U.K, meaning that it could be viewed by any child of 12 years and above. The article rightly questions whether certain aspects of the film such as the glorified violence and Heath Ledger’s terrifying Joker would cause children distress.

The article highlights a growing problem regarding violence depicted onscreen. While adults can choose to ‘get their full’ of blood and gore with the latest Hollywood horror film, it is becoming increasingly hard for parents to avoid subjecting their children to it.

Where do we stand today?

The online film magazine Cinemablend.com recently published an article entitled Is Justice League OK For Kids? Like the Guardian article that was published nearly a decade ago, the author Sean O’Connell rightly questions the level of violence that the newly released action movie Justice League contains.

Despite coming to the conclusion that the film is suitable for children, O’Connell points out in his introduction that the film features characters such as “Superman (Henry Cavill) who snaps his enemy’s neck, and Batman (Ben Affleck) who kills people”. He goes on to suggest that this form of toned down cartoon violence is more like an “animated episode of Super Friends than the live-action DC movies of recent years”, and therefore is acceptable.

The problem with this argument is that we are increasingly subjected to more and more Hollywood violence and therefore become less shocked by it. Not only that, but in order to deliver the ‘wow factor’ that leaves us all feeling any particular film was better than the last, studios have to increase the amount of action in each successive film.

Take the Fast and Furious series, for example, there is an obvious difference between the 1st installment and the latest.  The last 3 or 4 films featured so many action scenes that audience’s left the theatre with their heads spinning.

Time for a debate

Increasingly, it seems that we are at a point where we need to debate how much Hollywood violence is enough? We as an audience are becoming increasingly desensitized to violence and indeed require more and more in order to feel entertained by the latest Hollywood release.

The fact that children are now being brought into movie theatres to watch characters killing each other, while we suggest that the level of violence is nothing compared to the horror films we are used to, is quite alarming. It is certainly important to remember that this increasing level of Hollywood violence will only continue while its potential effects on us and our children remain un-debated.