THE BLOG

Don't Blame Violence on Tarantino Movies

01/14/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2013

Quentin Tarantino has got himself in the news for refusing to answer Krishnan Guru-Murthy's question about the link between movie violence and real violence. Let's take a look at some gruesome Tarantino-esque violence:

Then he withdrew his bronze spear from the corpse and laid it down. As he removed the bloodstained arms from Hector's shoulders, other Achaean warriors came running up and gathered round...And not a man of all who collected there left him without a wound. As each went in and struck the corpse, he looked at his friends, and the jest went round: "Hector is easier to handle now than when he set the ships on fire."

This isn't an excerpt from Tarantino's next script; it's a passage from Homer's Iliad, which was written approximately 2,700 years ago. Achilles, the Greek hero, stabs the Trojan prince, Hector, in the neck with his spear, but doesn't sever Hector's windpipe. That means there's time for the obligatory final dramatic conversation between hero and villain, while Hector bleeds to death. When Hector finally dies, the other soldiers mutilate his body. Not only do they mutilate Hector, they crack wise while doing so. Achilles then cuts the tendons in Hector's calves, lashes him to a chariot and rises each morning to drag his corpse around Troy.

I wonder if, in the 2,700 years impressionable teenagers have been studying The Iliad , there have ever been any copycat killings. Has the brutal and often gratuitous violence found in many classic stories ever spawned real-life mayhem? Not to my knowledge. Violence has been a mainstay of good fiction ever since people started telling stories.

"John sat on a chair and stared at the wall. That's all he did. He just sat there."

As an opening, this really doesn't do much.

"John sat on a chair and stared at the wall. His hands were tightly bound behind his back."

With the addition of physical restraint, we might have the beginnings of a story. Is John a hostage? Is he a captured criminal? Or is this a fetish set up for Fifty Shades of Grey?

John sat on a chair and stared at the wall. His hands were tightly bound behind his back. He looked at the grim-faced man who leaned against the wall and knew the man's associates would succeed in their plan to kill the president unless John was somehow able to escape. John jumped to his feet and rushed the man. With the advantage of surprise John was able to head butt Grim Face, kick him in the nuts and stomp his brains out.

Okay, it's not the most well-written sequence, but you get the idea. Without the violence, there's no urgency in the escape. Without the escape, there's no story. In most adventure stories, some level of violence helps keep things ticking along. Whether it's the swashbuckling sword fights of The Three Musketeers, or the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange, a level of bloodshed is intrinsic to many great stories. The issue that has always proved troublesome is the degree of violence society considers acceptable, and we seem to be having that debate all over again.

I've read about the outrage caused by Bonnie and Clyde and Taxi Driver. I remember the uproar at Natural Born Killers. The arguments are always the same. On the one side are the people who say film influences behavior and too much violence in movies makes society more violent. On the other side are people who believe in free speech and argue that millions of sane people who are exposed to massive quantities of movie violence never so much as lift a finger against their fellow citizens.

The truth is this issue isn't about violence in movies. It's actually about a small percentage of people who have mental health difficulties. Those who struggle to distinguish reality from fiction. Those who genuinely believe that they are living inside a movie, or that fictional characters have commanded them to commit atrocities. There are also individuals who don't suffer from delusions, but who are unbalanced in other ways -- those suffering from extreme, untreated personality disorders, or those who suffer from extreme forms of narcissism that make them relish the notoriety that comes with movie-inspired violence. The root of the problem is a small minority of people who need help dealing with reality, irrespective of what movies they see.

To what extent should we censor the entertainment of the majority in order to minimize the potential harm that can be caused by a tiny minority? In my opinion making significant changes to the existing certification regimes will accomplish nothing. The MPAA in the United States, the BBFC in the UK, and other ratings organizations around the world already have the power to set appropriate age restrictions on films, or, in extreme cases, ban them altogether. These ratings agencies cannot exclude people with mental illness from certain films, nor can they predict whether a horror gore fest or a family animation is going to trigger an irrational act of violence. For those reasons, it doesn't make any sense to subject movies to more censorship. The solution must come from elsewhere.

Instead of going for the easy target of the movie business, the government should take practical steps to identify and assist people who are suffering from mental illness and who are at risk of committing unprovoked acts of violence. A good place to start might be public information campaigns to help communities identify the early signs of serious mental illness. Information on what to do if you suspect that someone you know might be struggling with a serious condition should be widely available. There should be more support for teachers to identify children who are struggling with mental health issues. As a society we need to remove the stigma associated with mental illness and understand that it can strike anyone at any time in their lives. Taking practical steps and increasing the resources available to combat mental illness would almost certainly save more lives than a blanket ban on all movies, television and video games. This approach would also improve the quality of the lives of everyone affected by mental illness on a daily basis: those suffering from it, their friends, families, co-workers etc.

Violence and good stories have gone hand in hand for thousands of years. If we try to curb the level of violence in contemporary stories, we may lose something valuable in the process. Quentin Tarantino movies for a start. If we truly want to solve the issue of horrific, unprovoked acts of violence in society, we've got to get to the root of the problem and develop better ways of helping those suffering from mental illness.