For as long as there’s been a movie industry, it’s sought out novels and plays, magazine articles and even other movies to provide material for new movies. Usually, the screen adaptation has kept the name of the original. Would David O. Selznick, after buying the rights to “Gone With the Wind” (1939), or Robert Evans, after securing “The Godfather” (1972) for Paramount, have changed the title? Of course not, since the purchase was made as much for the name value of the product as its screen potential.
Sometimes, though, titles have been switched. The latest example is the Brad Pitt crime movie “Killing Them Softly,” which opened Friday. It’s based on George V. Higgins’s novel “Cogan’s Trade.” Since the novel was published four decades ago and wasn’t a bestseller, little is lost commercially by switching titles. But “Killing Them Softly” is even more opaque than the original. Worse, it bears an alarming similarity to Roberta Flack’s 1973 hit song “Killing Me Softly” — which has about as much in common with Higgins’s hard-bitten milieu as a powder puff does with brass knuckles. (On the other hand, avoiding any hint of girliness was presumably why Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel “A Princess of Mars” earlier this year became “John Carter.” ) And it’s not as if the director, Andrew Dominik, has a thing against keeping the original title of adapted material. His previous film, “The Killing of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), shares its mouthful of a title with the 1983 Ron Hansen novel that inspired it.