The Standards of Book Content vs. Movie Content

Last week was Banned Book week, so there were plenty of buzz around the blogsphere around it, and it got me thinking about the content in books compared to movies. There are several YA books out there with sex, language, and violence (hence why some of these books get “banned”). Some could be equated to a PG-13 rated movie, but some start getting into R rated movie territory, and I cannot help but wonder though, why it seems more socially acceptable for such content to be present in a YA book versus a movie, which will get rated R if there is too much of said content. Note before we go any further: this isn’t about banning books with “harsher” content, just about the content in books versus movies, and how available they are.

contentI watched Up in the Air recently, but on TV, so it was edited. And it was very clear just how many words they took out. I looked up the content advisory on my IMDB, which says it has, “Close to 25 f-words and about 10 s-words,” and then proceeds to describe some of the other language in the movie. It also has some brief nudity (which was also edited out). I have not read Looking for Alaska, but according to Rated Reads, it has “well over 50 swear words. (At least 17 of which are the f-word.) There also are two detailed sex scenes…” I list these stats to make a point. You see, Up In the Air is clearly marked as rated R if you see the DVD case or on a theater marquee. I realize the movie is not targeted towards teens, but it can’t be even if it wanted to be due to the content which lead to the rating. Looking for Alaska, on the other hand, sits on a bookshelf next to the tamer The Fault in our Stars in the YA section without any sort of labeling. A parent or a teacher would have no way to know what the difference between these books by the same author is without reading the books themselves or doing the research. I am not trying to excuse laziness on the part of a parent or teacher, but I just wonder about the double standard. Why does it seem important to keep kids under 18 out of the movie theater that is showing Up in the Air but they can buy Looking for Alaska without any parental consent?

I’m not really offering any solutions in this post, just questions and thoughts I have, and I am curious if anyone has insight on the matter. Do people think it’s different because books are “cranial”? Do they think reading is different than seeing (personally I don’t think there’s much difference). What do you think of this matter? Do you see a difference between book content and movie content? 

16 Responses to The Standards of Book Content vs. Movie Content

  1. You make a really good point. As a parent and a teacher, this is something I confront regularly. In the classroom, I must read every book I recommend, read aloud, or use as an instructional tool before students exposing students to it. (Exhausting, by the way). At home I’m not as strict, probably because of time constraints. So I have some faith in the authors and book marketers that the YA books my young teen picks up will contain appropriate themes for her rather innocent eyes. Video games, TV shows, and movies all abide by a ratings system, maybe something similar for books would be a solution. Great thought provoking post!

    • That definitely sounds exhausting! I do agree that some sort of rating system might be good. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the ones for movies, or video games as you pointed out, but just something…

  2. I’ve definitely thought about this before; how you are essentially free to read any book you want at any age, while for movies there are all these ratings. And since there’s all this talk about banned books, similarly a lot of movies get banned too.

    Anyway I don’t have any insights other than maybe because “seeing is believing”. Movies being visual is thus more explicit. There’s no pretending that something wasn’t clear, or that something that was horrible wasn’t that bad. With books, readers are able to imagine scenarios. They can choose to self censor and imagine something to be less harsh. And you can’t do that when you’re seeing it on screen, it is out of your hands. Maybe that is why they have all these bodies implementing rating systems for movies and doing the censorship. For example in Looking for Alaska there is a car accident. If the movie is ever made and they choose to show the crash, it maybe be disturbing to see what a mangled car after a crash looks like and it’s harder to continue believing that it is a perhaps a quick and fast way to go.

    • I do agree that you can gloss over details while reading, but you can also look away from something you are watching on screen. Part of it probably depends on the individual or the situation as well. For instance, reading a scene of two people kissing sometimes can actually stir something in me more than watching it in a movie, if I feel more emotionally connected to the way it was written versus the way it was shown. But it can happen the other way too. At least for me. I don’t know how it is for others.

  3. What a great observation, Amy! I can’t believe this hasn’t really occurred to me before, but it might be because I haven’t read many YA books with much content like that.

    I watched a documentary about movie ratings a while back, and it was interesting because it showed how arbitrary the ratings really are. It seems like the people on the ratings board (who remain “anonymous”) just pick and choose how they like, according to their personal preferences, for each movie. It was a pretty eye-opening documentary. I wish I could remember the name of it.

    In any case, my guess is that the movies have arguably stricter ratings because a lot of the people on the board are conservative people, and because movies are VISUAL and AUDITORY, it seems much more… obvious? Kinda like video games?

    • That does sound like an interesting documentary! The rules on language and nudity seem pretty set in stone for movie ratings, but I can see how iffy other sexual content and violence can be when making the determinations. I’m sure it would be hard to draw some of the lines for books as well.

  4. Interesting post, to me adult content is adult content whether it is visual or not. In my opinion books aren’t held to the same rating standard, because books are not read with as wide of an audience as movies are watched. Parents, teachers, and adults can all see what the adult content is in a movie. However, we (adults) only “see” the adult content if we read or research the book. That is why it is easier to ban a book than to try and apporpriately rate it.
    It would be helpful to either have a rating or a place for publishers to list adult content for those books for young adults, middle grade, and children. As a teacher, it would help me out greatly. I try not to recommend a book that I haven’t read. I agree with Gwen, it is very exhausting.

  5. Huh, interesting observation. I naturally wanted to say that I think it’s the other way around, that books are no where near as revealing and insulting as movies but then I realized that I have no idea when the last time was that I actually paid attention to a rating so maybe the ones I am thinking of are Rated R. Do you think then that maybe incorporating a rating system to books would be beneficial?

    • I agree with Amy O. above that I think either having a rating system or even just a content label in the book could be helpful. Whether or not they restricted selling certain rated books to minors, it could be helpful for parents or others who want to be aware. Of course, if it wasn’t restricted, I’m sure some teens would take the chance to find the “dirtiest” books they could.

  6. I can’t believe I never really thought of this before, and you deserve a round of applause for deriving this from Banned Books week. *cues applause*

    Movies gives the visuals, and understandably, there are ratings. Because it’s something else to allow a kid to watch a movie mainly about the characters having sex. But I also think books should have a rating too, because they could also have a similar effect. It’s just that a book doesn’t portray the scene, but it gives a view into the character’s head. So it could be as influential as a movie.

    But I hope they don’t go crazy with such a thing too. Such a thing would just make people more inclined to ban a book without reading it.

  7. I think the responsibility comes down to parents, they need to know what their children are reading and to be aware of how explicit the book is. I don’t believe in banning but at least if a parent reads the book they can talk about the issues that come up. It would be a great conversation starter for some of those hard to talk about subjects.
    Interesting observation though, I hadn’t really noticed it before but it does seem to be true. A rating system for books wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.

    • I agree that the parents should be aware of what their children are reading and the content of it! It’s sad that so many parents are unaware of what their kids are into.

  8. That’s such an interesting idea I favorited this post and have been thinking over my comments 🙂
    I mean it makes perfect sense that we have ratings or movies and few people raise an outcry over that age appropriateness. We also have ratings for video games and music and tv shows with the implicit expectation that parents use that rating as a guide. Few people question the idea that some movies and tv shows are ok for kids of a certain age and others aren’t. So, why not books?

    I have no idea why books are so different that there’s outrage at the idea of books being withheld from younger readers.

    I mean, burning books is probably bad 🙂 But I’ve never looked at Banned Book Week in the same light as movie ratings and now that you’ve introduced the idea I have nothing meaningful to say except that’s a really interesting idea!

    Except then I came across this quote that maybe explains why consciously or not we put books in a different category. “We’ve had libraries for centuries and fund them with public dollars because we view books not just as entertainments, but as repositories of culture and knowledge.”

    The idea that books are a repository for culture vs. a form of entertainment would make some sort of sense – we don’t want any sort of judgement placed on our culture or the passing on of that to the next generation. But entertainment lacks the value of a repository and is easily judged.

    I don’t know, maybe it’s only more fuel on the idea fire but I find this whole topic fascinating.

    • I do understand that we view books as more cultural, but can we honestly say every book ever written is a cultural experience? And though movies and TV shows aren’t generally “cultural,” I think there are some that are and also that are more so than many books. There’s that whole question of how much (sex, drugs, violence, fill in with whatever else you can think of here) is too much if it’s supposed to be a cultural or artistic statement. I don’t think there will ever be real answers to these questions.

      I just think it might be nice to have a rating system for books, just to make things simpler. It can be different and more complex than a movie rating, that’s totally fine, but just something that gives a glimpse into the content.

      Anyhow, glad you found this topic interesting!

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