Last week, Peter Jackson announced the third Hobbit movie was changing its title from There and Back Again to The Battle of Five Armies. I’ve already said my piece about that, but it got me thinking about the act of titling and what a fluid process it often is. The title on the screenplay is rarely the same one that appears on screen when the film premieres. Changing a title affects the marketing strategy, and ultimately the way the viewer experiences the film. Sometimes the changes are for the better, and sometimes they are for the worse.
Below are five of the worst and five of the best title changes to famous films. Take note, this list has nothing to do with how good the films are, just how good their titles are.
Worst Title Changes
One Shot becomes Jack Reacher
If you’re going to name your film after a main character, one of two things needs to be true: either the title character needs to be widely recognizable, like Dracula, or it needs to be a cool name (also Dracula). Jack Reacher is neither. Jack Reacher is not the only film guilty of this. John Carter of Mars became just John Carter, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, once devoid even of the interest-adding tagline, was initially titled Moscow. I chose Jack Reacher because One Shot is such a great title.
One Shot hits all the marks a good title needs to. It’s catchy and it grabs my attention. It also hints at the narrative. The film follows Jack Reacher’s investigation of a spree killings as he slowly realizes the mass shooting was executed to cover up one murder, one shot. It’s a great title. I understand Paramount’s desire to turn Jack Reacher into a franchise, but I think James Bond is doing alright without any film called Bond.
Eaters of the Dead becomes The 13th Warrior
This one is pretty much all about marketing. Both titles work well for the film, and the film would still be bad with either title. But why would you choose The 13th Warrior when you could have had Eaters of the Dead? Not only is this name infinitely more badass than The 13th Warrior, but it would have generated more name recognition. The film is based off a book by Michael Crichton entitled Eaters of the Dead. Maybe if they had stuck with Crichton’s original title, the movie wouldn’t have bombed so badly.
The Wettest County becomes Lawless
Yet another film that changed the title of the book it was based on. Adapted from the historical novel The Wettest County in the World, the title was first abbreviated to The Wettest County, then changed to The Promised Land, before finally given the profoundly boring moniker: Lawless. I understand abbreviating the title to the slicker Wettest County, but changing the title to Lawless bleeds the film of everything that makes it stand apart from all the other outlaw movies out there.
I cannot think of a better title than The Wettest County for a film about three brothers selling moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition. It’s a catchy, clever title, and it’s informative about the narrative of the film. Lawless could be a film about anything, which is why it’s a terrible title.
Let the Right One In becomes Let Me In
Let Me In might be the best adaptation of a foreign horror film ever, but that doesn’t stop its title from being grossly inferior to the original’s. The original title manages to be catchy, clever, and unsettling all at the same time. Let the Right One In plays on the convention that vampires need to be invited inside a home, but it also asks a question: who is the right one? This is a very unsettling question and the answer you choose drastically alters the way you watch this story of a boy who falls in love with an eternally young vampire. Is the love that the two feel for each other real, or is she using him because she needs a mortal to take care of her? Let Me In also plays on the same convention, but it loses all the nuance that made the original title so great.
Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night becomes Saturday Night Fever
I have mixed feelings about this change, but I still think the original is better. Saturday Night Fever is certainly catchier, but there’s just something about the original title that speaks to the deep sadness and complexity that the film plumbs. The film is exploring themes that are both universal and eternal. Yes, it’s examining these themes through the lens of disco, but it’s about something larger. Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night suggests that these dances are just the current stage of something larger that’s been going on for centuries.
When people watch Saturday Night Fever for the first time, many are struck by how dark and complicated the film is. Saturday Night Fever is a deliberately slick title, and while it does capture the energy of the disco craze, it kind of glosses over the paralyzing depression, racism, and attempted rape. There’s a lot of dancing in Saturday Night Fever, but there’s also a lot of heavy shit. After the film became a big hit, the film was re-released with all the dark and substantial bits cut back or removed to give the film a PG rating. Saturday Night Fever might be a better name for that film, but as the original stands, Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night is more fitting. It’s a title that lets people know they’re in store for something substantial. Then again, if the film had retained that admittedly clunky title, who knows if people would be watching it at all?
Best Title Changes
Watch the Skies becomes Close Encounters of the Third Kind
While Watch the Skies is certainly appropriate for a film about aliens, but it doesn’t have any of the mystery and excitement Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While the title is based on J. Allen Hynek’s classification system for UFOs, you don’t have to know the system to find the title intriguing. What is a close encounter of the third kind? What are the first two kinds? If you are familiar with the classification system, you the three types of encounters are sighting, physical evidence, contact. With this knowledge, the title poses the more straightforward and sinister question: what kind of contact is this?
It’s a great example of a long title that remains catchy. This is helped by the fact that it can easily be abbreviated to Close Encounters. Watch the Skies is still catchy and would make a good tagline for a movie about aliens. Only that movie will have a less interesting name, because the best ones are already taken.
$3,000 becomes Pretty Woman
There’s not a whole lot to say about this one. The title $3,000 is pretty terrible and the title Pretty Woman is pretty great. (Although it has to be said that some substantial rewrites were done between when the film was initially titled and when it was retitled Pretty Woman). If the film retained its original plot, a cautionary tale about prostitution, the title $3,000, which refers to the price Richard Gere pays for Julia Roberts, might have been more appropriate; however, as the film was remodeled into a romantic comedy, Pretty Woman hits the mark.
Hunter becomes Predator
A great example of how a subtle change can be a profound one. Yes, the words hunter and predator can be synonymous, but predator has much more sinister connotations, making it perfect the action horror movie. There’s something refined about the word Hunter. Perhaps its because, as humans, hunts are things that we can organize and participate in. Predator, on the other hand, that taps into something far more primal. Hunters are part of a sport; predators are part of the food chain.
Scary Movie becomes Scream
I have a great affinity for Scream, as well as any film that manages to be successful within the genre that it parodies. Scream is an excellent satire of the modern slasher film, but it also works as a horror film in its own right. If the film had gone by its original title, Scary Movie, it would have been seen as an outright parody, something akin to what the Scary Movie franchise actually became. The title is just too on the nose, too self-referential to be seen as a straightforward horror film. Scream, on the other hand, tips its hat to the intentioned effect of horror films, while still managing to imbue that nebulous malevolence that horror titles often have. It’s a title that perfectly reflects the tone of the movie: one foot in parody, one foot in horror.
Pacific Air Flight 121 becomes Snakes on a Plane
This is, hands down, the best title change of all time. Snakes on a Plane is the ideal example of how a title can profoundly affect a film’s success. Pacific Air Flight 121 is not the kind of title you get excited about. Snakes on a Plane is the kind of title the internet goes nuts over. If you had an internet connection in 2006, you’re probably aware of just how crazy people got. People were writing articles, creating memes, and drawing fan artwork. All because of the fantastic title. No one cared about the plot, they didn’t need to. Not when the title tells you all you need to know. It was a movie about snakes on a plane, starring Samuel L. Jackson, called Snakes on a Plane. You don’t need a marketing strategy when you have half the internet creating ads for your movie.
Snakes on a Plane is a pretty terrible movie. But it’s a terrible movie we’ve all heard of. It’s a terrible movie that I went to go see at midnight the night it came out. If had kept the title Pacific Air Flight 121, it would still be a terrible movie, but no one would have seen it. It might have gone straight to DVD. The B-movie poetry of the title Snakes on a Plane is what got that movie into the public’s minds, and into theaters.
A good title can’t make a bad film good, but it can make a bad film profitable, just like a bad title can make a great film bomb. Movie titles are a great opportunity to create excitement for a film and to frame the way an audience views it. It’s an opportunity that’s wasted all too often. If the position doesn’t exist already, studios need to create one whose only job is to ensure that every movie title is as catchy and thought provoking as it can possibly be. And if the position does exist, I’d like to submit an application.