October 15, 2015

How ‘The Martian’ Cleverly Drops Multiple F-Bombs & Still Gets a PG-13 Rating

How The Martian Drops Multiple F-Bombs and Still Gets a PG-13 Rating
If ever there was a situation that called for the f-word, I’d say getting f**king stranded on Mars would be it.

To get the all-important PG-13 rating from the MPAA, screenwriters can use quite a fair amount of salty language, but for most films you get one use of the f-word in a non-sexual context. You may have noticed that sh*t has become the new f**k in PG-13 land.

But in the real world — and the world of Mars — certain situations call for strong language, and the f-word says so much with so little.

Yet, if you want to appease the MPAA and cater to the PG-13 audience (i.e. no real restrictions on who can buy a ticket for your film, but a clear signifier that this film was made with teens and adults in mind), you have to use your one shot with the f-word wisely.

So when I took my twelve-year-old daughter to see The Martian this weekend, I was positively thrilled with how screenwriter Drew Goddard, director Ridley Scott, and star Matt Damon were able to work in multiple instances of the f-word when the situations called for it. Frankly, my daughter (and the rest of the audience) needed to hear it.

Before we examine the use of the f-word in The Martian, here's the film's trailer in case you haven't seen it:

The book upon which the film is based is full of the f-word. The first sentence of the book is, “I’m pretty much f**ked.” To stay true to the spirit of the original text, I expected to hear characters use strong language, both in stressful times and for comedic effect.

But the film is definitely PG-13 in terms of language and content, notwithstanding the use of the f-word. Even Common Sense Media rates it appropriate for audiences 12+, labeling it "Great for Families", and they are conservative in their ratings, in my opinion.

Actually, the f-word is only spoken aloud and audibly in the film twice (very mild spoiler alert: I will discuss a few scenes of the film without giving away major plot points). The first instance occurs early in the film. Immediately after astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, performs minor surgery on himself after getting injured, he realizes that even though he has survived, he is now stranded on Mars alone. What else can you say in that moment but the f-word?

The second audible instance was actually an ad-lib by Damon (“F**k you, Mars!”) that the filmmakers fought to keep in the film. Apparently, they won.

So, how did the film include more than those two f-bombs and stay in PG-13 territory?

How The Martian Drops Multiple F-Bombs and Still Gets a PG-13 Rating
Credit: 20th Century Fox

In a scene when astronaut Watney learns some bad news, we see him through the window of a Mars rover as he drops a series of f-bombs, but we don’t hear them. A simple choice on where to put the camera conveys everything we need to see to know exactly how Watney feels — and what he says.

The film also uses messaging between Watney and NASA to add a few more instances of the f-word. When Watney has the first opportunity to send longer messages to NASA and he is warned that the whole world can read his messages, we see several characters react to what Watney writes out of frustration, along with their comments after the fact about the coarse language Watney uses, but we never see the message. We can only assume Watney used some choice f-word conjugations.

Later, Watney sends a typed reaction in response to one of NASA’s suggested plans. On the screen, we see “Are you f--king kidding me?” with the dashes in place of letters. No one reads it aloud. In fact, the response leads to a funny moment between characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis debating the tone of Watney’s message.

How The Martian Drops Multiple F-Bombs and Still Gets a PG-13 Rating
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Why spend so much time discussing such a small detail of a film like The Martian when we could discuss the craft of adapting the novel into what has become a critical and box office success, not to mention an early award contender? Because choosing these words carefully to create what feels like the real world but actually fits into the MPAA’s definition of a PG-13 world is the craft.

Finding clever ways to insert a few implied f-words into the film makes The Martian feel more real without sacrificing a rating and losing a large portion of the ticket-buying public. And these suggested instances of the f-word are not gratuitous. They feel completely appropriate in context, and the filmmakers strike just the right balance with the frequency of their appearances.

For screenwriters learning the craft, these examples underscore the importance of choosing words carefully when writing a screenplay, balancing impact with audience expectations and ratings realities.

And sometimes, only one word will do.     

Your Comment

28 Comments

Too effin' right!

October 15, 2015 at 11:56AM

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L.Rowan McKnight
Film student
102

He kept bees in the small town of Effen
An Effen beekeeper was he
And one day this Effen beekeeper
Was stung by a big Effen bee

October 15, 2015 at 9:57PM

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How long have you been waiting before you decided to post this?

October 16, 2015 at 1:42PM, Edited October 16, 1:42PM

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All my life, Jocelyn, all my life. It has come to this.

October 17, 2015 at 12:45PM

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So the question remains; how did the film include more than those two f-bombs and stay in PG-13 territory?

Are you allowed 2 f-bombs per film in PG-13? Is context taken into account?

October 15, 2015 at 12:03PM

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MPAA typically only allows one use of the f-word in a non-sexual context for PG-13 rated films, as stated at the beginning of the article.

Obviously, there are a few exceptions -- like The Martian -- whose filmmakers make an argument to the MPAA to keep additional uses of the f-word based on context.

But by and large, you will only find one use of the f-word in non-sexual context in PG-13 films under the current ratings process.

October 15, 2015 at 12:36PM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

I believe they allow one use of it in a non-sexual context as well as one use in a sexual context, whereas two uses in either context typically pushes the rating to R. It might've changed though, it's been a few years since I looked through their guidelines.

October 20, 2015 at 7:58PM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
1144

The fucking irony when the fucking article writer censores the word fuck troughout the fucking article. What the fuck? ;)

Btw nothing in this article answers the actual fucking question on how the fuck they where able to get two "Fucks" in the movie and still keep a PG-13 rating.
Still a pretty nice fucking article even tough you felt that you had to trick me into reading it.

October 15, 2015 at 12:16PM, Edited October 15, 12:17PM

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Johan Salberg
Actor, Writer, Director, Editor
295

Thanks for your comment.

My goal with this article was to show how the filmmakers creatively implied the use of the f-word in different ways without the audience actually hearing the f-word. Implied vs. audible made the difference for the rating.

As for the two audible uses of the f-word instead of one, they made an argument to the MPAA based on context and apparently they won. If you can build a case for why the second f-word should be included and can persuade the ratings board (very rare, for sure, but not impossible), then you get to keep it.

Hope that helps.

October 15, 2015 at 12:39PM, Edited October 15, 12:44PM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Helps ?

October 16, 2015 at 1:45PM

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Exactly: they only actually used the word "fuck" 2 times. The rest, implied or not, are not actual uses of "fuck". There.

October 16, 2015 at 1:45PM

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Never thought of that until now... Really f--king brilliant article!

October 15, 2015 at 2:36PM

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Believe it or not Chris, not everyone drops the F-bomb, or even swears for that matter, in ANY situation. To me it just seems lazy on the screenwriter's part. It's like the actor announcing, "I'm so angry!" SHOW us he's angry and frustrated...don't TELL us.

October 15, 2015 at 2:43PM

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Stephen
74

Well this character apparently isn't a Mormon or Boy Scout, and most people in that situation would drop f-bombs. That's verisimilitude, Kyle.

October 15, 2015 at 10:00PM, Edited October 15, 10:01PM

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Well maybe you need to expand your view of the real world. You don't have to be religious or have to be into tying knots in the wilderness to dislike the word fuck. It's a sexual term with a crude connotation. I never use it. Believe me, there are plenty of other colorful words in the english language available to be used that don't contain the crude meaning that it has developed over the years. That being said, I thought the movie was awesome and used that word well. But that doesn't change my view of the word itself.

October 18, 2015 at 2:43AM, Edited October 18, 2:44AM

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Beau Wright
Filmmaker
350

I love movies and enjoyed this film. However, I hate that Hollywood sees it as part of its mission to contribute to the devolution of our culture. There may be times when the use of coarse language actually adds something to a film that helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the crassness of a character. Often, however, as in the case, the language is gratuitous and inserted merely to achieve a particular rating. Finding ways to add extra f-bombs doesn't really seem to be something to brag about.

October 15, 2015 at 5:59PM

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Robert Reeves
Assistant Professor of Communication
81

Agreed. When the single f-bomb is uttered in a PG-13 movie it stands out like a sore thumb instead of contributing to the story. It feels like they are carefully calculating what they can get away with in the film instead of focusing on making the story better.

As far as making a film as real as possible, we don't go to watch reality, we go to watch a well crafted story. Reality is usually a lot more boring than most films.

October 16, 2015 at 12:54AM, Edited October 16, 12:58AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
744

"Devolution of our culture" ? Let's make the word "fuck" acceptable instead of saying it by hiding behind "f-word". After all, they booth have the same meaning with the added bonus of having "f-word" making you look like a hypocrite. Or a pussy. Or both.

October 16, 2015 at 1:49PM

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I just did the dialogue list for a little indie Aussie film I was 3rd AD on. We had 87 fucks and 8 c-bombs. Doubt it'll get a PG-13 rating :)

October 15, 2015 at 10:15PM

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Jebus
AD / Producer
86

nah, will be sweet as to get a PG-13 in aussie - that's just everyday language ;)

October 18, 2015 at 10:43PM

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jeff brass
camera button pusher
119

Thanks, very interesting article!

Does make you realise that sometimes tiny script changes can massively alter a films potential audience and hence revenue by gaining a certificate that allows it to be seen by a wider audience.

October 16, 2015 at 5:26AM

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Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner
481

Great article, thanks for posting this. Interesting read.

October 16, 2015 at 8:59AM

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Kevin Greene
Editor
709

Is it me or are people still too prudish in 2015? And it's so selective what is deemed appropriate or not. I hear people complaining about censorship in China and other countries, but there's plenty of censorship in American media that doesn't make any more sense.
Oh hundreds of people getting killed, slashed up, blood and guts on screen is A-OK but God forbid a female nipple, or the F word!

October 16, 2015 at 2:09PM

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KC
74

How about the PG-13 shot of Matt Damons ass? How'd they swing that one?

October 16, 2015 at 10:26PM

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I actually thought it was distracting during the movie to see them tip toe around the F-word so much

October 18, 2015 at 3:03AM, Edited October 18, 3:03AM

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Nathan Presley
Director
89

IIRC there are also two F-bombs in Bridge of Spies (also PG-13). It's the same line, quoted by a different character, which I thought was an interesting argument to make.

October 22, 2015 at 11:05AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

You know how they do it? Because they know that the "1 f-bomb rule" is a MYTH. IT is just the stupid people get to continue to spread that bullshit because the internet makes it so easy for idiots to publish.

Just as ONE (of many) examples of PG-13 movies using it more than once...the American President. Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening and Michael Douglas all say it at least once. No tiptoeing at all. All three were VERY loud and very matter of fact. PG-13.

October 23, 2015 at 3:44AM, Edited October 23, 3:48AM

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Thank you for posting all these scripts. I am writing one right now and it is incredibly helpful to read some of these to see what kind of language, format and descriptions they use. :)

February 19, 2016 at 8:53AM, Edited February 19, 8:53AM

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You idiot I haven't even seen the martian.

April 12, 2017 at 9:58PM

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