On Violence in Films & Young Teens (The Book of Eli)

On Violence in Films & Young Teens (The Book of Eli) June 23, 2012
(The Book of Eli as an Example)




Recently, my wife Judy and I decided that our 15-year-old son shouldn’t watch the movie, The Book of Eli (rated R) at a “movie night” with his friends. We came to that conclusion after reading a Christian movie review. Many Christians seem to think it is okay for viewing, presumably because of the strong Christian themes (also praised in this same film review). That may be for adults, but with young teens I think it is a different story. We cannot agree that such an amount of violence, sex, and language in a film is appropriate for a 15-year-old.

The review, even after praising Christian elements in the film, notes:

Regrettably, extreme caution is advised for the movie’s excessive amount of extreme, brutal violence as well as some scenes of implied rape and attempted rape, and an unnecessary amount of foul language. It may be difficult for many viewers to sit through a few of the scenes because the violence is at times so abrupt and unexpected, almost shocking. Please see the content section for a more complete explanation of the objectionable material.

Personally, I don’t think these things need to be included. It could easily have been a PG-13 without all this explicit stuff. It’s not necessary. But that’s my opinion from an artistic perspective, of how to do a film. I know that reasonable and good folks can differ on that. The question comes down to what is gratuitous, unnecessary sex, violence, and language in a movie.

Even Hollywood recognizes that there is an appropriate age differential for movies (hence the rating system); it’s not like it is some novel concept. Nor do we apply it absolutely or legalistically. Our son has seen The Passion of the Christ; I have no problem with him watching For Greater Glory, or the older Glory; possibly even Saving Private Ryan, if he can stomach it: all R-rated. I don’t think those have gratuitous violence or sex or bad language. That’s the key to the discussion. Those movies are also all about real events, and a discussion can be had about the propriety of showing things as they really occurred.

If The Book of Eli had been made in 1960 it could have been just as good without the foul language, sexual innuendoes, gory violence, etc. That’s unnecessary to the plot or the impact, in my opinion. The movie doesn’t have to be made that way. I could construct a reductio ad absurdum argument about a film about the woman caught in adultery in the Bible or Bathsheba, which includes a half-hour scene of graphic intercourse, in order to show “realistically” what these women (or their lovers) went through. I think that illustrates the flaws in that sort of reasoning.

There are lines that can be drawn, in rational Christian (or even purely secular) argument, and opposition to such things is not mere (or necessarily) prudery or excessive “puritanical” legalism. Beyond this, I would contend that our culture continues to become more and more coarse and permissive as to what is fit in public. We’ve seen that in all these ways: language, sexuality, and portrayals of violence. It’s not silly or “old-fashioned” to engage in sensible philosophical, Christian-influenced discussion as to how far is too far. It’s not about “censorship”; it’s about intelligent and moral choices concerning how we spend our time with entertainment or reading / viewing materials. Reasonable and good people can differ (very good friends of ours do). I’m just saying that a discussion about it is helpful and should take place, and that my view on this can be fully defended on several levels.

I don’t think The Passion has gratuitous violence. I think a cogent argument can be made for that, and I agree with it. The same applies to Saving Private Ryan. It was, I think, necessary to the plot to give viewers a jarring idea of the actual traumatic, horrifying experience of D-Day. Thus, we can experience in some sense “exactly” what Jesus went through and what the brave soldiers in Normandy endured, in order to preserve our freedoms. I personally appreciated that very much, for the purpose of empathy and better understanding. Schindler’s List falls into this category, too, though bottomless scenes in Auschwitz were gratuitous, in my opinion, and I remember a single friend of mine objecting strongly to that at the time (with full justification, I think).

My wife Judy would never watch The Passion (nor The Book of Eli) because she is too sensitive to that. She’d have nightmares for weeks. I’m not sensitive or opposed in that sense (squeamishness or “fragility”); I’m simultaneously making both an artistic (filmmaking philosophies and techniques) and “parental” argument.

Here’s a second evangelical review of The Book of Eli with the same sorts of concerns:

It’s got loads of violence, and we know violence isn’t exactly the healthiest stuff to consume in a media diet. But evangelicals have always been a bit more at peace with violence in film than, say, bare bosoms, . . .
And I understand the appeal: Washington’s Eli is, literally, on a mission from God—protecting the last Bible on earth with all the vim and vigor his gun-toting, blade-thwacking self can muster. It’s got just scads of really powerful, really positive messages and lots of ideas to discuss. . . .
It has the sort of spiritual themes I’d love to show and discuss with my teenage kids—if it wasn’t for all the flying blood and hacked limbs and cannibalism and such.
In my review, I essentially said that Eli‘s violence doesn’t nullify Eli‘s message. But neither does Eli‘s message excuse its violence. The tension between these two elements made it a particularly tricky film for me to review.

Another one praises the Christian theme, details the violence to the nth degree, and concludes:

Despite the heavy violence, mature thematic content, and offensive language, “The Book of Eli” is a thought-provoking film that has much to offer mature audiences, as it asks viewers to reflect upon their own commitment to Christ. [my bolding]

Exactly, “mature” audiences . . . he doesn’t get into my more philosophical argument about how much violence is necessary in a film to get the point across, but does recognize that it is for “mature” viewers.

I saw a reference where Steven Greydanus, the respected Catholic reviewer, simply called the film a “dim-witted quasi-religious apocalyptic thriller . . .”

Common Sense Media offers parental reviews, and notes that out of 21, 81% thought language was an issue, and violence, 67%. One says that it is “certainly not appropriate for younger children and younger teens.” Another called his review, “17 and up.” A parent of a 15-year-old wrote:

I made the mistake of going into this movie without checking the reviews and I regret taking my son to it. He kept his eyes covered and 30 minutes into it, asked if we could leave. I completely agreed. Extreme violence/gore, nudity, vulgar language, etc. As much as I love Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, I really couldn’t stomach this one.

Wikipedia notes that reviews were highly mixed. Entertainment Weekly, e.g., rated it as a “D” — without any overt anti-Christian bias that I could see.

I’ve gone back and forth as to whether I will watch The Book of Eli myself. At first I was inclined to; now I am leaning against watching it, based on several reviews I have read. But I haven’t fully decided yet. If someone says that it is silly to judge a movie without watching it (should I decide not to), I reply that this is what movie reviews (like book or music album reviews) are for: to help potential customers make an intelligent choice as to how to spend their time, up to and including a refusal to watch / read / listen.

I’m not a big fan of “action” flicks, anyway (what I derisively refer to as “cars overturning and flying around every minute” movies). A product has to earn the “right” (so to speak) to be experienced: for folks to spend money enjoying it. Otherwise, who cares about a review, if it has no effect on our decision, pro-or con? They would be perfectly irrelevant: like one person preferring vanilla in ice cream, and another chocolate (me!).

I agree that it is quite obvious that a person will know more about a film by watching it rather than not doing so, but I disagree with some who think that it is irrational to refrain from watching, based on reviews, or to come to a negative conclusion based on same; because this is the purpose of a review: to help people make wise choices as to how to spend their time.

As an author myself, I have to do my best and work hard in order to write a book that earns a good review (and I do get good reviews most of the time on amazon and elsewhere), thus causing relatively more people to purchase and buy. I can’t just sit here and say that everyone must read my book to have any informed opinion about it at all (if reviews exist and can be accessed), if it is not a quality work. No! Quality and worthwhile (in my case, educational and edifying) material has to be present, and that comes by hard work and earning approval. It’s not automatic. No one is required to read any of my books anymore than I am “required” to watch The Book of Eli.

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