‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet’
Ah Shakespeare, the supreme wordsmith. Trust the Great Bard to turn a commonplace adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and encapsulate it with flowery symbolism. I wonder how he would have fared if he had been tasked with formulating movie titles, surely he would not have been able to better such classics as ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ (1964), ‘I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle’ (1990) and the seminal masterpiece ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies’ (1964).
The name of a movie is a vital component to the marketing strategy and the title is usually the first reveal as to the nature of the film. Audiences subconsciously dissect titles, picking out specific words and looking for direct or inferred meaning. For example it would be safe to assume ‘To Catch a Thief’ (1955), ‘Homicide’ (1991) and ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995) are all thrillers, while ‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957), ‘Love Story’ (1970) and ‘Love Actually’ (2003) fall under the banner of romance.
Titles can of course be misleading. Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (1985) has nothing whatsoever to do with the country or for that matter the nut, the Gus Van Sant indie ‘Elephant’ (2003) has nothing to do with the mammal, African or Indian and ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ (1996) starring Michael Douglas is a historical adventure rather than a haunted house horror.
From concept through to post production a film title can change many times and for an assortment of reasons. Ridley Scott was originally toying with the name Gotham City for his sci-fi/film noir masterpiece that would eventually be called ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) but was refused permission by Batman creator Bob Kane. Screen writer Adam Herz submitted a script with the name ‘Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10m That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love!’ The title was subsequently changed to ‘East Great Falls High’ then trimmed to ‘Great Falls’ and finally changed altogether to ‘American Pie’.
A particularly interesting example of a name change/alteration concerns the recent blockbuster film Captain America: The First Avenger. Cognizant of recent anti-American sentiment Paramount and Marvel offered a choice of title. Russia, Ukraine and South Korea all opted for the amended ‘First Avenger’. Some dropped names are often picked up for other features. The Wes Craven horror ‘Scream’ (1998) was originally going to be called ‘Scary Movie’ but it was decided the title teetered too close to self parody, something of an irony as the Wayans brothers used the same title for that exact purpose.
Generally speaking a good titles needs to be catchy, concise and clever but not so clever as to alienate an audience. Daniel Craig’s second outing as James Bond was in ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008). The title (based on a short story by Bond creator Ian Fleming) confounded audiences and was criticised for being too ambiguous. Bond titles by their very nature tend to be nonsensical (see ‘Live and Let Die’) but Quantum of Solace, which incidentally refers to the smallest unit of compassion a person can have, was derided prompting one critic to compare the title with the word blancmange, “too many consonants, not enough sharp edges.”
Some filmmakers seem to delight in frustrating audiences with titles tricky to pronounce. Philip Kaufman’s tale of the human condition ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008) is a particularly fine example. Pronounced Sin-neck-duh-key it was mispronounced by countless commentators and TV film critics causing various levels of tongue-tied embarrassment. The romantic turkey ‘Gigli’ (2003) starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez is another ill conceived title. Pronounced Jee-Lee (the second ‘g’ is silent) it was mocked and ridiculed. The US talk show host Craig Kilborn encapsulated the film and title succinctly “It’s spelled ‘Gigli’ but its pronounced “the worst movie ever made.”
Other seemingly innocuous titles can be unintentionally funny. The Anglo/American divide is often ignorant of common colloquialism which is why ‘Free Willy’ (1993) (‘Willy’ being British slang for penis) and The Last Air Bender (2010) (‘Bender’ is an intrinsically British and derogatory term for a homosexual) were received with guffaws and sniggers in the UK. On the flip side, the film title ‘The Full Monty’ left many US audiences in the dark as to the meaning.
Language and foreign translation have led to some very peculiar results in other countries. Sometimes a literal translation is not possible and film titles are open to broad interpretation. For example ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997) in China was translated as ‘His Great Device Makes Him Famous’, while in Israel the Seth Rogen comedy ‘Knocked Up’ (2007) had a far more sobering title ‘The Date That Screwed Me’.
The success of film titles will always be hit and miss. Titles are subjective and open to criticism and praise in equal measure. That said there are still some titles that are effortlessly effective; ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999) while others are dire to the core; ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar’ (1995), ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ (2001) and Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever’ (2002).
Finally I’ll leave you with the name of a film that currently has the distinction of having the longest title. It is a 1962 film originally called ‘The Brain Wouldn’t Die’ (another B movie title gem) that has been redubbed and given a new humorous soundtrack. Try asking for this at your local video store! ‘Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Hellbound, Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead, Part 3’ (2005)
(Incidentally the title of this article is a parody on the woody Allen film ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were to Afraid to ask’ – 1972)
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