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A brief history of rape in the cinema… October 16, 2009

Posted by Patrick in Cinematics.
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Birth (2004)

Originally published in Flux

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” hits cinemas this December. The book, written by Alice Sebold, tells the story of Susie Salmon, a young girl who is raped and murdered. The book was controversial upon its release for its subject matter, especially in the fact that it describes Susie’s rape in detail.

The major difference between the novel and the film is, however, that the rape will not be depicted on screen, but rather implied. It’s not clear whether this was an artistic decision, or if the change was made in an effort to be more ‘family-friendly’ to attract fans of Jackson’s previous franchise, the Lord of the Rings film series.

The controversial plotline even had some of the film’s stars worried. When they heard that the scene would not be included in the film, many were relieved.

“I was very nervous,” says Stanley Tucci, who plays the film’s antagonist and Susie’s murderer. “I can’t watch movies where anything happens to a kid.” Irish-born Saoirse Ronan, who was just thirteen when she auditioned for the film, was also grateful for the change.

“We knew what the movie was about, and of course that rang alarm bells [with my parents],” says the actress, now fifteen. “But we knew we were in safe hands.”

Cinemagoers who aren’t familiar with Alice Sebold’s novel may be surprised by the darker elements of the story. The trailer doesn’t help matters much either, undecided at whether it wants to sell an epic fantasy, a tearjerker or a tense thriller.

And while the film adaptation may be toning down the elements of sexual abuse present in the novel, sexual abuse has been featured prominently in both major and independent films for many years now.

In mainstream filmmaking, the tendency seems to have been to refer to the act of abuse rather than depict it on screen. 2008’s “Doubt”, which starred Meryl Streep as a nun who suspected a priest of abusing a child who attended their Catholic primary school, was one such case.

Also nominated for numerous Academy Awards last year alongside “Doubt” was “The Reader”, starring Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz, a woman who falls in love with Michael Berg, played by David Kross, a teenager who is much younger than herself. This film, however, features detailed and lengthy scenes of the two making love, even though Winslet’s character is a thirty-six year old and Kross’s character is just fifteen.

Naturally, this film attracted controversy and although it was generally well-received, some could not get past the unorthodox relationship of the film’s two principal characters. Thelma Adams of The Huffington Post found the relationship to be “abusive” and branded the sex scenes as child pornography.

“Michael is a victim of abuse, and his abuser just happened to have been a luscious retired Auschwitz guard. You can call their tryst and its consequences a metaphor of two generations of Germans passing guilt from one to the next, but that doesn’t explain why filmmakers Daldry and Hare luxuriated in the sex scenes — and why it’s so tastefully done audiences won’t see it for the child pornography it is.”

Hard Candy (2005)

In 2006’s “Hard Candy”, Ellen Page plays a young woman who poses as a fourteen year old child to coax paedophiles into meeting up with her, and then teaching them a lesson in the form of both physical and psychological torture.

Similarly, the film “Sleepers” featured a group of young boys who are sent to a detention centre where they are abused and brutalized by the guards who work there. Thirteen years later, the boys reunite and have a chance to avenge the horrific crimes they suffered in their childhood.

One of the reasons that sexual abuse is not generally shown in films when it pertains to children is that filmmakers are obviously uncomfortable asking child actors to film these kinds of scenes. And when scenes like this have been filmed, they have caused major controversies.

Back in 2004, director Jonathan Glazer unveiled his film “Birth” at that year’s Venice Film Festival. The film, which stars Nicole Kidman as a young widow who believes that a ten-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband, features provocative scenes of Kidman and the boy in the bathtub together.

New Line Cinema Executive Vice President Mark Ordesky, in an interview with Newsday at the time of the film’s release, said, “here is a woman, this character, who has to grapple with an incredible situation. Cameron is playing a grown man trapped in the body of a 10-year-old. When you see the performances in the context of the plot, it makes perfect sense. It is meant to be a provocative film, but not in a horrible or salacious way.”

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

While many films shy away from the realm of sexual abuse and rape, they are part and parcel of a genre which emerged at the beginning of this decade, ‘torture porn’. This genre, an offshoot of the traditional horror genre, adds graphic sexual violence to the expected gore. The genre obviously has its share of detractors, but financially it has been quite the success in recent years, with films like ‘Hostel’ and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ making millions a the box office.

Sexual abuse and rape have become major themes in modern filmmaking and are continuously being explored in a variety of genres and contexts. From the fantasy world of “The Lovely Bones” to the gritty horror and torture of “The Hills Have Eyes”, films which explore these themes are almost guaranteed to create a certain amount of debate.

Whether filmmakers will continue to push the boundaries regardless of the contention they are likely to attract, like in “Birth” and “The Reader”, or if they will gloss over the subject of sexual abuse like “The Lovely Bones” remains to be seen.

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