When we think of cinematic censorship in America, most of us assume it doesn’t really happen all that often. After all, America is the land of the free, right? We don’t censor, other countries do. Sure, there was the Hollywood 10, The Interview debacle, and religiously-motivated censorings at the local level, but these were the growing pains of a relatively young and naïve society, you say. We’ve surely outgrown it, you say.
It turns out there is a long list of well-known movies that have been censored in order to fit the standards of the MPAA, the organization that rates films. In fact, censorship happens each and every year, to dozens of films. Even before the MPAA existed, in the beginning of the 20th century, studios would negotiate directly with communities in order to meet local viewing standards and ensure their films reached the broadest possible audience. In fact, some of our favorite movies of all time would never have made it to the silver screen at all if they hadn’t been censored first.
Here are 15 Movies You Didn’t Know Were Censored In America.
15. Frankenstein (1931)
While Universal Studios’ 1931 take on Frankenstein was not the first cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (it was the fourth), it was certainly the first to butt up against censorship issues in the United States. The film was drawn from Peggy Webling’s 1927 play adaptation, which was described as “illiterate” and “inconceivably crude” by Universal’s adapting screenwriter. The 1931 big screen take on the tale was met with vocal criticism from several state censor boards and interest groups.
What was so upsetting about the film? The claims levied against Frankenstein ranged from blasphemy to general depravity. The state of Kansas requested that a whopping 32 scenes be omitted before it could be exhibited within state lines. Universal Studios negotiated with Kansas, and a compromise was ultimately made, but scenes like the one in which the monster drowns a little girl in a lake weren’t revived until the 1980s, when the negatives were re-discovered in Universal’s film vault.
14. Casablanca (1942)
We know what you’re thinking. Casablanca? The American gem set in Nazi-occupied Morocco during World War II, one of the most iconic films to come from Hollywood ever, the one sodden with one unforgettable quote after another? What was so objectionable? What was censored? It turns out the screenplay contained a (for the time) fair share of references to infidelity (gasp!) before getting rewritten several times in an effort to appease the Production Code Administration.
What we see today is vastly different from the original script. For one, Captain Renault was written to very explicitly extort sexual favors from those seeking political asylum. This was deemed too racy for American audiences by the MPAA, and the final film version only vaguely implies it. More drastic was the decision to cut explicit references to Rick and Ilsa’s previous sexual relations, and the details surrounding it, in favor of merely implying a vague romantic history.
13. Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932)
Scarface was being written at a point in time when other gangster films, like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, had incensed huge swaths of middle America for their graphic depictions of violence. Approval from the MPPDA (the precursor to today’s MPAA) to release the film was held off for two years before Howard Hughes finally relented to (most of) the MPPDA’s alteration requests.
Before it could be released, The MPPDA made Hughes append the title with “The Shame of The Nation“ to make it clear that the American people were not to root for the hero, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Incestuous elements and a great deal of violence were also done away with. Once it was released, groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency were still outraged and drove the public debate concerning movie violence to a boil. In response, Hollywood ratified the “Production Code,” which was a set of rules imposed on itself about what could and could not be shown in its movies. Of course, the rulebook only lasted until 1968, when directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah started to test the boundaries of normalized cinematic violence for a new generation.
12. Natural Born Killers (1994)
Natural Born Killers was given an initial rating of NC-17 by the MPAA for its excessive violence. In order to get the treasured R rating, which was the key to getting any film a full release at that point in time, director Oliver Stone cut a full 4 minutes of violence from it. Not to say anyone could really tell the difference.
For those of you who don’t know, the film follows two serial killers, Mickey and Mallory (played by the most impeccable Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, respectively), as they barrel through a multi-state killing spree, cheered on by the media’s fervor for pointing a camera at them and their bloody crime scenes. Despite all of its violence and over-the-top sense of humor, it is a pretty harsh indictment of the media’s complicity in perpetuating violence. Ironic, considering the film was blamed for inspiring a litany of copycat crimes. But who’s counting?
11. RoboCop (1987)
Like Natural Born Killers, Paul Verhoeven’s critically acclaimed actioner RoboCop was originally given an X rating by the MPAA. In response, Verhoeven cut out some gore and re-submitted the film to the MPAA, only to receive yet another X dubbing. He did this 11 times before he finally got his treasured R rating.
Verhoeven’s back-and-forth with censors wasn’t his first rodeo. He began making films in the US in the early 1980s only after being ousted from the Dutch filmmaking community for his film Spetters, which featured a disturbing male rape scene. Underneath all of RoboCop’s gore and violence, however, it is, like many exceptionally violent yet critically acclaimed films, a thoughtful examination of violence and how it relates to broader social institutions. In fact, several of Verhoeven’s films, including Starship Troopers, satirize the darker side of American culture, like corporate greed, jingoism, and violence profiteering. Of course, you could also just enjoy the blood and guts for its own sake and toss all that other stuff aside.
10. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Saturday Night Fever is the film that propelled John Travolta to the upper echelons of fame and galvanized a disco revolution that took America by storm. And to think you probably haven’t ever seen the original version. The first version of the film was R-rated and was distributed in theaters to wide success in 1977, but only for a limited audience. The movie was doing so well that Paramount Pictures had director John Badham make over 100 changes to the original in order to get it a PG rating and re-release it in 1979 for family audiences.
The PG version of Saturday Night Fever is the one that remained in the public consciousness. It was the version that saw a home release and heavy television air-time for decades to come. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the R-rated version made a return to TV and was finally made available through home video (with the advent of laserdisc). Even then, VH1, TBS, and TNT all edited out major instances of nudity and explicit language before airing the movie on their networks.
9. From Here To Eternity (1953)
From Here to Eternity is an undeniable cultural relic. It got nominated for thirteen Academy Awards and won eight, and it was even inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002 for its social, cultural, and artistic importance. It is also forever a record of a time past in which homosexuality could not be so much as mentioned in popular American media.
The novel upon which the film was based (which, incidentally, was written by James Jones, who also penned the novel that inspired Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line) was intended to contain scenes that refer explicitly to homosexual relations, but was instead censored by Jones’ editor to merely hint at and insinuate these things. The film was even further scrutinized by the U.S. Army, which was very aware of the novel’s homosexual underpinnings, and as result, the film adaptation contained even fewer indications of the author’s intended themes.
8. Fanboys (2009)
Kyle Newman’s Fanboys is one of those movies that is primarily only funny to, well, Star Wars fanboys/girls (and not really anyone else). Who knows, it probably could have ended up being funnier to a broader audience if it hadn’t gone through a series of plot-marring rewrites, reshoots, and re-edits to appease Harvey Weinstein’s distaste for the film’s central premise.
Versions of the film with and without reference to one of the characters having cancer were screened for various test audiences before its release. When pre-emptive fans of the film heard this, they immediately threw a cyber-fit, demanding the version with the cancer subplot be released. The film’s own creators and stars said the film wouldn’t make sense without the cancer plot. The fans eventually got their way and the film was released on February 6, 2009, a year and half after its originally intended release date of August 17, 2007. It earned back less than a quarter of its $4 million budget.
7. The King’s Speech (2010)
How could anyone forget Colin Firth’s life-affirming struggle with and victory over his own stammering mouth? Such a feat would probably be damn near impossible if you’ve seen the version with all the F-bombs. But chances are that when you went to catch this Oscar winner in theaters, you ended up sitting through the neutered version. Sounds a lot less fun and about half as memorable, right?
Harvey Weinstein saw the film as having huge potential after it racked up over $30 million in just three weeks in the UK, claiming the reason it did so well was because it was rated in such a way that people in the UK could take their whole family to see it. Weinstein wrestled with British director Tom Hooper to edit the film’s profanity down for a PG-13 version, and eventually won the battle. Both the R-rated and PG-13 versions were ultimately released in the US, and the (F-bomb version of the) film still netted Academy Awards for Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Colin Firth), and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler).
6. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Boys Don’t Cry opened to critical acclaim at the New York Film Festival on October 8, 1999 and went on to rake in $11.5 million, nearly 6 times its production budget. The film deals with the details surrounding the real-life murder of a trans man named Brandon Teena, and came out only a year after a homosexual student at the University of Wisconsin, Matthew Shepard, was murdered, in part sparking national dialogue concerning LGBTQ rights, trans and homophobia, and hate crimes.
Although the film was largely praised for both social and artistic reasons, the film did not run without its share of controversy. Specifically, it attracted vocal outrage for its intense and explicit rape scene. The MPAA originally gave it an NC-17 rating, which limited Fox Searchlight Pictures’ initial theater release of the film. It was eventually cut and re-released with an R rating. Director Kimberly Peirce later spoke out against the MPAA for the double standard of stipulating the sex scene between Teena and his girlfriend Lana Tisdel be removed but elements of Teena’s graphic murder be left in.
5. American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho was a controversial book for years before it was a controversial movie. Author Bret Easton Ellis received numerous death threats upon the book’s release, some of which called for the dismemberment of Ellis’ body like those of the victims in his story. The book was censored to various degrees in multiple countries, including Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.
The movie adaptation, directed by Mary Harron and starring Christian Bale, is often framed as a deliberate satire of Ellis’ novel and yuppie-culture in general. Whereas Ellis was not as judgmental of the subject matter, Harron draws absurdist, but critical parallels between 1980s Wall Street and the world of a serial killer. Perhaps this meaningful framing of the violence saved the film, because despite all of the viscera, the film received an initial MPAA rating of NC-17 specifically and solely for depicting Patrick Bateman (Bale) having a threesome with two prostitutes. An estimated 18 seconds of that scene were deleted by Lions Gate in order to appease the censors, and all the film’s violence was left in the final cut.
4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Most people know Eyes Wide Shut for being Stanley Kubrick’s last film. The famed director died only days after finishing the first edit of the film, and reportedly told several executives including Julian Senior and Jan Harlan that it was his best film ever. Of course, others claim that he despised the film, so believe what you will.
Regardless of whether or not Kubrick thought his own cut of the film was a masterpiece, it was censored after the director passed away, so he never got the chance to see what was ultimately released. The MPAA required Warner Brothers to reduce the amount of sex and nudity in Eye Wide Shut before the film could be given an R rating. Instead of deleting scenes outright, 65 seconds of the film were altered with CGI to obscure various sex acts by placing hooded figures in front of couples engaged in sex at a masked ball orgy. Audiences were completely unaware of the CGI in the film until HBO began streaming the unaltered version of the film on HBO GO in 2015.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street contains 569 variations of the F-word, countless instances of drug use, and, depending on how you slice the pie, depicts 4 sex scenes and several other sex acts throughout its 3-hour marathon of utter hedonism. It’s no surprise then that the American version of the film, which is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, was cut by a quarter of its original run time for Dubai audiences and was outright banned in Malaysia and Nepal.
But before the American film was altered for audiences abroad, the original cut of the film was also censored before it could even reach domestic audiences. You can probably guess that it was originally given an MPAA rating of NC-17 before Scorsese trimmed the film down to get its R rating and a wide release. Despite all of the debauchery, DiCaprio had nothing but high praise for his director. “[Scorsese] was able to bring out a sense of humor to that dark side which is apparent in this movie, which very, very few directors can accomplish.” We tend to agree.
2. Team America: World Police (2004)
We know what you’re thinking – How was Team America censored? It’s just a bunch of puppets! Well, let’s first stop to consider it’d be a wonder if the first cut of anything Matt Stone and Trey Parker made wasn’t first sent back to be cut for decency. Their entire careers have ridden on their knack for finding and pushing the boundaries of the American media’s sense of vulgarity.
In the case of Team America, Stone and Parker had to cut a drawn out sex scene between two puppets in order to get the R-rating. Don’t get too bummed out, because the DVD version contains the scene in all its glory, so for all of you puppet-lovers out there, you can still get a glimpse of the hot plastic action you missed in theaters. As a rebuttal to the MPAA’s instructions to remove the sex scene, Parker stated, “They’re not anatomically correct and we did the thing that all kids do.” We assume he’s referring to mushing dolls’ faces together and making kissing noises, but obviously, he and Stone took things a bit farther.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
You’re either lying or a member of the Westboro Baptist Church if you say you don’t like Pulp Fiction. It’s the epitome of cool, the safe-bet favorite movie in every college freshman’s first drunken conversation about movies, a veritable jackpot of cult-classic one-liners and universally-recognized images. And yet, for all of its popularity, very few of us are aware that it was largely censored.
The version of Pulp Fiction that airs on television is so censored as to be effectively maimed. The whole heroin shooting up scene is taken out, the scene in which Vincent (John Travolta) finds Mia (Uma Thurman) overdosing on cocaine is removed, and the scene in which Vincent and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) argue after Vincent accidentally blows Marvin’s head off is entirely gone, just to name a few. At least we don’t have it as bad as the citizens of the United Arab Emirates, where the film was entirely reworked, shaved down to two-thirds its length, and each sub-story edited to play one-by-one in chronological order.
What other movies were censored in the land of the free? Let us know in the comments.