What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot actually. A good or bad name can make or break a film however good the film itself may prove to be. Long titles such as “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” (1971) can spell disaster as in the case of the little seen Dustin Hoffman film. That said, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” works as does “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask”, perhaps because both take their names from well-known books, the latter being a Woody Allen parody. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is of course easily shortened to Borat. But The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford proved a big flop in 2007 despite widespread critical acclaim.
Other failings? Using bits of “humorous” dialogue (“Don’t Tell Mom, The Babysitter’s Dead” or “Slap Her! She’s French”) is usually bad while multiple titles for the same film (e.g. “Adventures In Babysittng”/”A Night On The Town”) suggests uncertainty on the part of the studio.
There are no hard and fast rules though. Titles don’t even have to make sense to work either. Philip K Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale was filmed as “Total Recall”, a definite improvement (star Arnold Schwarzenegger even used the title for his autobiography over twenty years later). But while “Blade Runner “sounds niftier than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (another story by PKD) what does “Blade Runner” actually mean? Does it have anything to do with the story? Is this why the film flopped on its initial release? Would the longer title have worked better?
And what about “Fargo”? It is not even set in Fargo. The action all occurs in nearby Brainerd. But it works. As does “Back To The Future” (1985) which narrowly escaped being called “Spacemen From Pluto”.
The following films, whether good or bad, successful or not, were less fortunate…
- “Good Will Hunting” (1997)
A great film and a big success but the title suggests it is about someone hunting for good will. In fact, the main character is called Will Hunting. And he is…er… good. Rubbish! How do you like them apples?
- “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997)
Another great film which flopped I suspect because of its title. In theory, it’s clever: Martin Blank (a hitman John Cusack) returns to his hometown of Grosse Pointe for a reunion. Logical enough. But the title makes it sound like a “gross” version of the film “Point Blank”. Minnie Driver (who herself has rather an odd name) is in both of these.
- “Lucky Number Slevin” (2006)
An okay thriller about someone called Slevin. Ultimately just an awful title.
- “Swimfan” (2002)
A thriller. The main character is someone who likes swimming. Hence, er, Swimfan. Rubbish anyway.
- “A Night To Remember” (1958)
A silly title for a decent film about the Titanic disaster which makes it sound like Sunday Night At The London Palladium (or latterly a song by Shalamar). Most of the people on the Titanic didn’t remember the night for long anyway. Most forgot everything very quickly.
- “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” (1999)
What the hell is a “phantom menace”? Warning bells should have sounded when this title was announced.
- and 8. “Batman Forever” (1995)/”Batman and Robin” (1997)
Call me pedantic but the names should be swapped round here. Robin is in both films but first appears in “Batman Forever”. And as “Batman and Robin” turned out to be the last Batman film for a while (given that it’s one of the worst films ever made) “Batman Forever” would have been a better title. Okay, so neither are bad titles in themselves, I just wanted to mention it. Is that okay with you?
- and 10. “Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head” (1966) and “Carry On Follow That Camel” (1967)
The only two titles in the Carry On franchise which make no grammatical sense whatsoever.
“Hell Comes To Frogtown” (1988)
As if this wasn’t a great enough title, the main character is called Sam Hell. And he goes to Frogtown! I love it but I’ve never seen this or the similarly well titled “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974).