The title search
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture title duplication do you find most annoying?”
At the thrift store up the street from my house, there’s a shelf that an enterprising employee has stocked with a selection of used books designed to make you look twice: The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Tiger’s Wife, A Reliable Wife, American Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and probably some others I’ve forgotten. It’s funny to see them lined up in a row, but there’s a reason this formula is so popular: with an average of just three words, it gives us the germ of a story—at least in terms of its central relationship—and adds a touch of color to distinguish itself from its peers. As with the premises of most bestsellers, the result is both familiar and a little strange, telling us that we’re going to be told the story of a marriage, which is always somewhat interesting, but with a distinctive twist or backdrop. It’s perhaps for analogous reasons that the three most notable mainstream thrillers of the past decade are titled The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train, the last of which is still awaiting its inevitable adaptation by David Fincher. Girl, in the context of suspense, has connotations of its own: when used to refer to an adult woman, it conveys the idea that she looks harmless, but she isn’t as innocent as she seems. (And I’m far from immune from this kind of thing: if there’s one noun that challenges Girl when it comes to its omnipresence in modern thriller titles, it’s Thief.)
When you look at the huge range of words available in any language, it can feel strange to reflect that the number of marketable titles often feels like a limited pool. Whenever I’m about to write a new story, I check Amazon and the Internet Science Fiction Database to make sure that the title hasn’t been used before, and in many cases, I’m out of luck. (Occasionally, as with “Cryptids,” I’ll grab a title that I’m surprised has yet to be claimed, and it always feels like snagging a prime domain name or Twitter handle.) Titles stick to the same handful of variations for a lot of reasons, sometimes to deliberately evoke or copy a predecessor, sometimes—as with erotica—to enable keyword searches, and sometimes because we’ve agreed as a culture that certain words are more evocative than others. As David Haglund of Slate once observed, everyone seems to think that tacking American onto the start of a title lends it a certain gravitas. For many movies, titles are designed to avoid certain implications, while inadvertently creating new clichés of their own. Studios love subtitles that allow them to avoid the numerals conventionally attached to a sequel or prequel, which is why we see so many franchise installments with a colon followed by Origins, Revolution, Resurrection, or Genesis, or sequels that offer us the Rise of, the Age of, the Dawn of, or the Revenge of something or other. I loved both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a problem that their titles could easily have been interchanged.
Then, of course, there are the cases in which a title is simply reappropriated by another work: Twilight, The Host, Running Scared, Bad Company, Fair Game. This sort of thing can lead to its share of confusion, some of it amusing. Recently, while watching the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, my wife was puzzled by a sequence revolving around the movie Crash, only to belatedly realize that it was referring to the one by David Cronenberg, not Paul Haggis. From a legal perspective, there’s no particular reason why a title shouldn’t be reused: titles can’t be copyrighted, although you could be sued for unfair competition if enough money were on the line. Hence the inadvisability of publishing your own fantasy series called Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time, although Wheel of Thrones is still ripe for the taking. (In Hollywood, disputes over titles are sometimes used as a bullying tactic, as in the otherwise inexplicable case of The Butler, which inspired Warner Bros. to file for arbitration because it had released a silent film of the same name in 1916. There’s also the odd but persistent rumor that Bruce Willis agreed to star in Live Free or Die Hard on condition that he be given the rights to the title Tears of the Sun—which raises the question if it was worth the trouble. Such cases, which are based on tenuous legal reasoning at best, always remind me of David Mamet’s line from State and Main, which knows as much as any film about how movie people think: “I don’t need a cause. I just need a lawyer.”)
Which just reminds us that titles are like any other part of the creative process, except more so. We feel that our choices have a talismanic quality, even if their true impact on success or failure is minimal, and it’s only magnified by the fact that we only have a handful of words with which to make an impression. No title alone can guarantee a blockbuster, but we persist in thinking that it can, which may be why we return consistently to the same words or phrases. But it’s worth keeping an observation by Jorge Luis Borges in mind:
Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.
And that’s as true today as it ever was—it’s hard to think of a less interesting title than Breaking Bad. Still, the search continues, and sometimes, it pays off. Years ago, a writer and his editor were struggling to come up with a title for a debut novel, considering and discarding such contenders as The Stillness in the Water, The Silence of the Deep, and Leviathan Rising. Ultimately, they came up with over a hundred possibilities, none of them any good, and it was only twenty minutes before they were set to go to the printer that the editor finally gave up and said: “Okay, we’ll call the thing Jaws.”