This Movie Rx is going to depart from the norm in that I will not be discussing any one particular movie, but a general trend: Naming your movie after the character. Here’s the Rx: Stop doing it. Seriously. It’s idiotic, and it almost never works.
“Oh, wait, wait!” you say, “there’s this movie, or that movie that’s named after a character and it has been SUUUUUPER good.” This has nothing to do with whether the movie is good, but on the effectiveness of using a character’s name as the title. The fact is, it doesn’t work. No one cares. Not even you, and I’ll tell you why.
So Why Do Studios Do It?
It’s a handy way of branding a movie franchise. That’s it. It’s not interesting, nor is it creative, but it is a way of creating (literal) name recognition. A boring business decision.
It is a dog-whistle way of letting fans of a book series know that their favorite character is coming to the screen. The problem with this is that the name will hold no meaning for non-fans, and the fans would probably prefer, or would have recognized the original book title in the first place. And as most people know, fans don’t like it when you go and mess with their stuff.
What’s in a Name?
Don Quixote. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve at least heard the term “Quixotic” used to describe someone who is delusional or with a loose grasp on reality. Published in 1605 and 1615, it is one of the most influential works in literature. It is an interesting and evocative name, particularly from a contemporary perspective. And then there’s Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Moby Dick, Carrie, and many many more. There are a few of things that these titles have in common. One, they’re all book titles, and two, they’re almost all old. They are also evocative or interesting in some way or another (Carrie in its utter innocuousness, aided by the fact that the name right under the title is Stephen King).
A title has to tell a story, and in marketing for a mass-appeal motion picture, this is doubly important. A simple name like John Carter or Jack Reacher just doesn’t do it.
How A Name Can Be Used
The obvious choice is to go with a name/parenthetical or name-and-the-story title. Like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone for us illiterate Americans). If it had just been “Harry Potter” would anyone have looked at the name twice? There are good reasons to choose a generic sounding name for a character, and adding a story name to it. In the case of Harry Potter, it melds the ordinary with the magical.
Bourne is an interesting name, but it is much more interesting when connected to Identity or Supremacy. All that Jason Bourne says is that Matt Damon is back in the role… which you can see in the trailers. Why not call the movie Bourne Again? OK, bad joke, but there has to be some word they could have used that would be more interesting than Jason.
Or John Carter. They might as well have called the film John Smith, or Robert Jones. Obviously, the title is not the reason the film failed, but it is still Weak. Why not John Carter, Warlord of Mars or just Warlord of Mars? It’s a bit of a mix-and-match with the book titles, but then again they changed the character and story so much, it didn’t matter at all. Warlord of Mars is pulpy and wonderful and will probably never be used now. Shame.
I understand why they changed the name of the first Jack Reacher movie. It was based on a book called One Shot. Not exactly sending the right message there when you want to start a whole franchise. Still, One Shot is a more interesting title. As a result, the movie didn’t do nearly as well as it should have. I mean, how different could it be from Jerry MaGuire. A lot, actually, not that you’d know by the title. Don’t like One Shot? Fine. Go back to the author and see if he can come up with another title for you. Most authors have a few unused alternatives laying around.
The thing is, movie studios, you can always go back and retcon things. Like Lucas with Raiders of the Lost Ark. So on the home release, add the Jack Reacher: to the box. Don’t harm this movie by going with a weak title in order to establish your franchise. Make the film the best, most impactful thing you can and worry about the rest later.
When You Can Get Away With It
Logan is a good example, but only because of a combination of star power, the fact that there a bajillion movies behind it, and strong word-of-mouth. Old Man Logan is still a better title, but given the storyline, makes total sense for why they didn’t use it.
So there you go. Don’t rely on star power. Unless your character’s name is something like Lindsay Planetcrusher, or has the word MARVEL preceding it, come up with something interesting. Like Hellblazer, for example. Hey, wait a second, that’s a great name. I wonder if it’s copyrighted?