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.
On occasion, there are discernible reasons for changing a title, even when it’s worse than the original. The makers of “Satan Met a Lady” (1936) — now there’s a grabber of a title — presumably wanted to obscure the fact it was a remake of the first film version of “The Maltese Falcon” (1931). That didn’t stop John Huston from reclaiming the title for his classic 1941 film. Charlie Kaufman’s script for “Adaptation” (2002) has even more to do with the process of adapting another work, in this case Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief,” so jettisoning her title makes sense. The only possible explanation for Karel Reisz using “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (1978) for his film version of Robert Stone’s National Book Award-winning novel, “Dog Soldiers,” is that he was a really big Creedence Clearwater Revival fan. At least he didn’t call it “Keep on Chooglin’.”
Sometimes switching titles can be a wash. Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” has a pretty good one. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997) may not be an improvement, but it has the benefit of singling out Pam Grier’s character. With all due respects to Charlestown, “The Town” (2010) doesn’t have such a hot title. But neither does Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves” — and at least no one will enter the theater expecting to find Kevin Costner with a bow and arrow. “Charly” (1968), the movie that won Cliff Robertson a best actor Oscar, looks like a typo. But “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes’s novel, sounds like a florist shop. At the other extreme, “Heart of Darkness” is a title nearly as great as the novella that bears it. (Joseph Conrad came up with a lot of good ones: “Nostromo,” “Typhoon,” “Lord Jim,” “Victory” — very Jerry Bruckheimer, that last one.) But “Apocalypse Now” (1979) is right up there, too. Same thing with “Macbeth” and “Throne of Blood” (1957). Yes, Kurosawa’s sounds a lot more commercial, but don’t forget the track record Shakespeare’s has going for it.
There can be no disagreement on some movie titles being an improvement. Lovers of Yeats’s poetry may mourn Larry McMurtry’s “Horseman, Pass By” becoming “Hud” (1963). No one else ever has. Is “Vertigo” (1958) better than “The Living and the Dead” (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel) and “Rear Window” better than “It Had to Be Murder” (Cornel Woolrich’s story)? What about Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and the novel that inspired it, Gustav Hasford’s “The Short-Timers”? The questions answer themselves.
Speaking of questions, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is pretty fabulous as a title; but “Blade Runner” (1982), which is based on that Philip K. Dick novel, is just as good — and better in a movie way. Dick also got the shorter, punchier treatment with “Total Recall” (1990, 2012), based on his story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”
Less is almost always more when it comes to switching titles. “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) is not a good one — but it’s definitely better than that of the Stephen King novella it’s based on, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” “Saturday Night Fever” isn’t a better title just because it’s shorter than “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the New York magazine article that inspired the movie that made John Travolta a star. But length’s a factor — plus it never hurts getting into a title a word that signifies heat. That even extends to places in hot climates. You’d be shocked, shocked if anyone preferred the title “Everyone Comes to Rick’s,” the play that inspired “Casablanca” (1942), to the movie title. Every once in a while movie titles are like real estate: not just length, length, length, but also location, location, location.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misnamed the short story on which the film “Total Recall” is based. The story is called “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”