Hollywood's R-Rated Faith
By Jesse Carey
Interactive Media Producer
Editor's Note: The film House released on DVD this week (April 7). The following story was written prior to the movie's theatrical release and looks at the controversy surrounding the R-rating it received from the MPAA and how adult content effects Christian art.
This week, the MPAA—the group responsible for deciding the ratings of films—announced that the movie adaptation of the Christian novel House would be rated R. The announcement reportedly came as a disappointment to producer Ralph Winter (who also helmed blockbusters including X-Men and Fantastic Four), who feared that an R rating would isolate younger fans of the book. The R rating also does not bode well for a film that’s primary audience is Christians—a group that, at least collectively, has not traditionally embraced R-rated movies (that is, aside from The Passion).
The book, which was co-authored by veteran writers Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, is a dark thriller about several strangers being locked inside an old mansion while being stalked by a homicidal maniac.
Even though the plot sounds more like the latest Saw installment, Peretti and Dekker are well known for combining elements of fear and horror into stories that eventually reveal the grace and redemption of God juxtaposed to evil and terror.
Peretti is perhaps best known for his breakout 1986 novel This Present Darkness, which reads like a supernatural sci-fi epic, featuring battles between angels and demons and while taking glimpses into a spiritual realm. The book has sold more than 2.5 million copies and has gone through some high-profile movie optioning along the way. Dekker on the other hand, first began making a name for himself in 2000 and later gained notoriety for his thriller Thr3e, also about a murderous stalker. Since then, he has become one of the hottest writers in Christian fiction, penning a series of top-selling thrillers.
The two writers, who teamed up for House, helped usher in an interesting trend in Christian fiction—using elements like fear and horror to tell stories that ultimately praised faith and redemption. And though there has been some, relatively minor backlash, from some Christian readers concerned about the demonic elements of some of their stories, Christian audiences have largely embraced the two writers and their haunting books.
But unlike novels, which are not rated for content, a foray into movies offers an interesting challenge for the pair (and, in a larger context, Christian filmmakers). Can Christians portray the same dark themes, plot devices and imagery on film that they can in print? Why is it OK for one medium, and not the other?
When questioned why the film version of House received an R rating (which surprised the filmmakers), the MPAA said that it was rated R for “terror”. In other words, (as Ralph Winters points out), the MPAA could not point to any specific element like profanity or violence that made the film unsuitable for audiences under 17; they felt that the story itself was inappropriate for young viewers.
Ultimately, fiction novels and feature films are meant to be entertainment (and, in most cases, the underlying themes and overarching messages are secondary to entertainment value). So that raises the question—what kind of stories should Christians tell or read/view?
One interesting phenomenon that accompanied the rise of religious media is that somewhere along the way, “family friendly” became synonymous with “Christian” when it came to labeling entertainment. Authors like Dekker and Peretti are breaking new ground with their stories that certainly aren’t family friendly in the traditional sense, but are no less “Christian” than Veggie Tales. This paradox is virtually non-existent in the broad world of Christian fiction, but on film, an R-rating is still the scarlet letter.
Fireproof, the PG-rated movie that has been taking in millions at the box office, focuses on a broken marriage and how a biblical lifestyle can redeem it. The film, however, only makes loose references to non-PG themes like pornography addiction and an extra-material affair, without ever directly discussing or examining them. The vagueness in how the topics are handled helped it maintain its family friendly rating, but would a deeper examination of these real-life issues have made the film even more impactful?
Of course, there’s the old cliché that if the Bible were made into film, it would certainly have some R-rated moments. (Mel Gibson’s depiction of Christ’s brutal execution is a perfect example of how a lack of restraint on the screen can increase the impact of a movie.) Murder, genocide and sexual promiscuity are all elements that are found in scripture—topics many Christian filmmakers who base their works on the Bible trend very lightly upon.
In popular Christian music, you also see that, generally, only the most easy-to-swallow characteristics of God are sang about. When is the last time you heard a song about God’s judgment or wrath? One Christian radio station I once saw advertised promoted itself by saying it was “Safe for the little ears.” There’s nothing wrong with providing wholesome entertainment, but we too often run the risk of assuming that all Christian entertainment fit the qualifications of what is “safe.”
In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which has ironically been made into a Disney/Walden movie) Lucy (one of the children transported to Narnia) asks this question about why she should be nervous before meeting Aslan (who represents God in the story). “Then he isn’t safe?” Here’s the response: “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
When House hits theaters in a couple weeks, use discernment when deciding whether you want to take along teenagers, but don’t write off the movie just because what it is rated. Some of the most powerful and challenging movies I’ve seen were rated R. Because sometimes, the realities of the world, the dangers of evil—and how God can redeem even the worst situations—aren’t always safe for the little ears.
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Jesse Carey is the Interactive Media Producer for CBN.com. With a background in entertainment and pop-culture writing, he offers his insight on music, movies, TV, trends and current events from a unique perspective that examines what implications the latest news has on Christians.
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