A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: April, 2006
Mark Twain nailed it when he said The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. If you've ever seen a lightning bug, you'll understand just how ugly, misshapen and wrong the wrong title can look to a writer.
In moviedom, ideally, your title should be saying "what the movie is" in a wonderfully succinct, smart and catchy way. And it's a tricky business. Though there are people who do this for a living (producers routinely hire freelancers to come up with lists of possible titles for movies in title trouble), most people go at the process haphazardly and capriciously. The one general truism? Everybody knows what's not a good title. Case in point, a certain play that went through a substantive sea change when it was adapted for the screen...
Lightning bug: Everybody Goes to Rick's
Lightning bolt: Casablanca
In this case, I doubt anyone would argue for bug over bolt. Wouldn't Casablanca still be the great movie it is, even if saddled with such a suckass title? Yes, but it would seem subtly diminished, somehow - you'd speak its title with an indulgent smile, perhaps in the way you might admit to a love for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (great genre movie, silly genre title).
And meanwhile, the city name "Casablanca" would lose its aura of romance. The relationship between movie and movie title is mystically symbiotic: one affects the other, and context is crucial (i.e. the title Casablanca largely seems a great title to us because the movie is great). I think you'll find that it's extremely hard to separate a title from its implicit movie associations, especially if you've already seen the movie.
Take for example The Silence of the Lambs. Pretend you've never heard it before, nor ever met Hannibal Lecter. Looked at objectively... What's up with this oddball phrase? Kind of intriguing, but could you honestly have sussed out its weirdly, by now almost mythically iconic power, if you'd seen it slapped on a cover sheet? If I saw a spec script called The Silence of the Chickens, I'd think "stinker," and/or assumed it was a comedy (see Mel Brooks Rule: Words with "k" in them are funny).
Do I think Johnny Guitar is a great title because I love the movie? No, because the first time I heard it, I laughed. There's so many delicious little frissons of subtext implicit in that name (i.e. tweaking the grand tradition of such generic names, from Nick Danger to Johnny B. Good) that the fact that the movie actually is about a Johnny who carries a guitar instead of a gun is gravy. But you may think it's a dumb title, period.
And what do we really mean when we say "great," anyway? Again, tough call. I think most everybody would agree that The Usual Suspects is a classic great title (speaking of Going to Rick's), for obvious reasons. But Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc is only "great" in that it so perfectly captures the spirit of the genre it's embodying and sending up. It's so bad, it's great... in its own context.
All I could come up with was the beginnings of a category system. There are a multitude of specific types of movie titles. What complicates the issue is that every category has its own exception that proves the rule. For example, place-names: Chinatown and Sunset Boulevard work. But not all geographical titles sing. Want to go see Pittsburgh?
Here are a few other popular categories...
Names: Dr. Zhivago, Forrest Gump, Tom Jones (Mr. and Mrs. Smith - bolt or bug?)
Adjective/Nouners: The Big Sleep, The Last Detail, The Virgin Suicides
One-word: Titanic, Scream, Memento (Bug: It - Bolt: Them)
Common Catch-phrase: from A Room With a View and Lost in Translation to the mediocre A Perfect World.
Spoken commands: Play It Again, Sam, Wait Until Dark, Love Me or Leave Me
I's: happening - I Want To Live, I Know What You Did Last Summer v. not happening: I Eat Your Skin.
And so on. As with all writing, specificity is king. This is true whether you're going literal (Gladiator, a movie about a guy who's um, a gladiator) or more metaphorical(Goodfellas, a movie about Mafia mooks). A great title is memorable, and it's axiomatic that memorability is largely proportionate to specificity. For example: dueling bank heist pics Inside Man (adequate but easy to forget) v. Dog Day Afternoon (brilliant and indelible).
Maybe the Most Effective Title Category is the unique. I find that most of my favorite movie titles are sui generis: they fit no one category easily, or they overlap a few; their characterization is that they can't be characterized. They're like mini-haiku poems that "do not mean, but be," like...
Run Lola Run
The Year of Living Dangerously
Again, subjectivity runs rampant. I'm a fan of Pick-Up on South Street, for its pulpy-noir tone, but I'll never think Death to Smoochy is a great title, sui generis though it surely be.
At any rate, here are two links for the Title Maniacs among us: One is a truly existential labor of love or madness, a film made by a movie title collector that purports to contain every title ever, or some such hyperbole. I can't figure out if it's genius or merely annoying, so... your move.
Second, a truly spectacular "Thank God somebody took the time to put this together" site that's a veritable Orgy of Movie Titlemania: Steven Hill's Movie Title Screens Page. This obsessed, lovable lunatic has assembled captured stills of the titles of thousands of movies (samples of them are scattered throughout this post). It's a fascination to scroll around with Steven, so knock yourself out: Title inspiration abounds.
And by all means, chime in: What are your favorite movie titles - and why?