Censoring a King
April 4th, 2011

Happy Monday.  I’m excited to announce a very special guest blogger today.  Many of you know my sister Anne from her time over at Life in Pencil.  Though she has recently stepped back from the blogging world, she knows she always has an open invitation to post here, should something thought-provoking speak to her.  I was thrilled last week when she mentioned a certain inspiration, and am honored to be sharing her words with you today.

It’s the kind of film the Oscars adore.  Pedigree cast, period costumes, and British accents.  The King’s Speech had Oscar written all over it, and win it did.  But added to the usual trappings of an Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech had something else…mass appeal.  Beneath the thick London fog, there’s a crowd-pleasing underdog film we Americans love to love.  You can’t help but root for the stammering monarch, and his supporting cast of feel-good characters. This is one of those rare Oscar winners—unlike The Departed or The Hurtlocker—that you can truly call a “family film”.  Oh, wait.  Except for that pesky cussing and the R-rating.

If you haven’t seen the King’s Speech, then I have two things to say to you.  1)  See it.  You’ll like it.  2)  SPOILER ALERT!!  And with that, I’ll proceed.

In the film, Colin Firth’s Duke of York has to let go of a few inner demons (namely, Daddy) that plague his speech.  The straight-laced Duke cuts loose in front of his speech therapist and unloads some serious f-bombs with – surprise! – no stutter.  It’s not only funny, but illuminating.  It’s a moment that tells us as much about his character as maybe any other moment in the film.  But if you’re the ratings board, you don’t care.  It’s the F-word.  Rated R for, “don’t bring your kids.”

As it turns out, the Weinstein Company has a fool-proof plan to deal with the R-rating, open the film up to more families, and make caboodles of dollars.  They’re going to censor it.  Harvey Weinstein, usually a champion of artsy and gutsy films, has released a PG-13 version of the film in theaters, in which Colin Firth’s landmark cussing is softened and cleaned up. In this article, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman discusses this decision, and presents it as a problematic precedent, mostly for artistic reasons.

I’ll admit I’m a fan of the well-placed cuss word, and not a big fan of awkward editing.  I don’t enjoy excessive cussing, and it can certainly become distracting if used poorly.  But when used correctly, the 4-letter word can also bear artistic merit.  Ever tried to watch Sex and the City on TBS?  Don’t.  Samantha is all but destroyed.  Numerous famous movie lines contain some colorful language, and one need look no further than another Oscar contender this year—True Grit—to find the famous Rooster Cogburn yelling “Fill your hand, you son of a BITCH!!” at a critical moment in the film. (No doubt riskier when it was uttered by John Wayne in 1969).  “Son-of-GUN” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?  The language makes these scenes memorable and quote-able years later, and the words themselves also make a statement about the character and the moment that no genteel sentence can match.

If you believe this sanitization tarnishes a piece of well-developed character development, then you’re against the PG-13 release.  But how about examining it from a parenting perspective?  According to the Motion Picture Association of America, an R rating means, “Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.”  So, what in the name of popcorn and jujubes, should prevent a parent from doing just that?  Why not accompany under-17 children to see the (otherwise squeaky clean) film, and then simply talk about the use of language if they’re concerned?  I’d venture to say there’s not a single word in the film that a kid over the age of 10 hasn’t heard before, and in a much less artistic and meaningful context.

Studios these days produce plenty of trash, but trash this isn’t.  It’s well-made, uplifting, and chock-full of fine acting and clever writing.  While the Weinstein Company just started marketing The King’s Speech as a “family film”, it was all along. No editing necessary.

5 Responses to “Censoring a King”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    You are so right about the censored versions of Sex in the City! They are completely castrated. And yet still, if I click and one is on, I get pulled in.

    And I agree–if it’s a language issue or something else minor, why not take your kid?

  2. Gale Says:

    Anne – I think you make some really good points here. So often coarse language is not at all germane to the plot. While it can sometimes lend an air of authenticity (as in Sex and the City or The Sopranos), it often provides nothing more than a “cool” factor. But in this case the swear words are instrumental to both the plot, and to the audience’s understanding of the protagonist.

    I suppose supporters of the PG-13 release would assert that younger kids might see the original version of the film and walk away believing that swear words are their ticket out of stutter-ville, and assume carte blanche to adopt a foul mouth. But I agree that with the necessary parental guidance and discussion kids will find the story empathic, without seeing it as an example for their own behavior.

    Thanks so much for posting here today. It’s a treat having you.

  3. Jan Says:

    This is along the same lines….sort of. Is this the same thing as the new cleaned-up version of Huckleberry Finn? In the new version, some professor has substituted the word “slave” for you-know-what, on the theory that the story is the same, but it won’t get banned from so many school libraries. “The King’s Speech” is a contemporary movie and not an American classic, but I don’t know where I come down on this. (Odd, considering my language is notoriously bad.)

  4. Anne Says:

    Jan–Interesting you bring that up. I can’t remember where, but I read a similar article about the Huck Finn “sanitization”, and the critic/scholar was incredibly against the censored version. I think he argued it changes the very societal context in which Huck Finn was written, which dilutes the entire racial message of the book. Can you imagine banning Mark Twain?! Ugh.

    Gale–I like your differentiation between using cussing as a “cool factor” vs. plot point.

    Kitchen Witch–in Sex and the City–have you ever noticed how they edit Mr. Big so that he says “Abso-freakin’-lutely”??? It’s so criminal!

  5. Barb Says:

    Annie, well done! I think a well-placed epithet is not a bad thing. In the iconic cliff-diving scene from “Butch Cassidy”, “oh, darn!” wouldn’t have gotten the point across. By the same token, the only movie I have ever walked out of was “Glengarry Glenross” because the language was “gratuitous”. However, regardless of the presence of “foul language”, I think it is unfortunate when folks dismiss a movie or book out of hand just because of the presence of “colorful” language. Can you imagine the last line of “Gone With the Wind” otherwise? I’m just saying…