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The Game Of The Name

Titles and Tribulations.

It doesn't matter if it's your book and you've adapted it, or if it's your original screenplay; there are two suggestions that you're probably going to have to field from your producer at some stage in its development. Both are always carefully put, as well they might be.

One: "You know, there's no real reason why we can't cast an American in this."

And the other: "I'm sure if we all put our minds to it, we can come up with a much better title."

I'm calling them suggestions. It would be more accurate to say that you're being offered opportunities to capitulate before entering a battle you can't win. The implication in each case is the same. The change is going to happen with or without you, so far better to go with the flow and at least have a chance of influencing it a little.

Casting American in an otherwise British movie is a form of pandering that makes sense only in the minds of some producers and distributors. American audiences don't take British movies to their hearts simply because there's a token Yank in there. Especially not when said token Yank is usually someone either of modest potential (looks of a model, talents of a mannequin) or well past it (too drunk, too old, too broke to be discriminating)… because, let's face it, these are usually the only ones who'll take the jobs.

Consider, for a moment, the kind of British movies that US audiences do take to their hearts. Howards End. Truly, Madly, Deeply. Enchanted April. Four Weddings and a Funeral. The Full Monty. They don't 'assemble elements'; they get on and tell their stories. Narrative's what we're good at, over here. When we try to assemble elements the way they do it in Hollywood, we look like cargo cultists trying to build an airport on the beach. US rave reviews of The Crying Game give high praise to Stephen Rea and the storyline and almost no mention to Forest Whitaker, whose non-soldierly physique and Dick Van Dyke cockney accent are the only major obstacles to the film's credibility. And yet still this myth persists; that if we can put an American actor of some slight familiarity in there, that huge potential world audience will turn out where it otherwise wouldn't.

They don't. Nobody does, because casting is one of the keys to making a film work and to miscast grossly as deliberate policy is like hanging out a plague flag. For the evidence, go straight to the 50p shelves in your local video library; because that's exactly what so many of the movies do.

And while you're there, take a look at some of those titles.

The bad puns. The tough, ironic little clichés. And worst of all, those lumpish attempts to imitate or reassemble the titles of other, bigger, successful films. The same kind of thinking that justifies 'casting American' also holds that the title 'makes' the film. Lists of titles are made. They're tried out on colleagues, on secretaries, on complete strangers. What do you think of this? Would this title make you want to see this movie?

All in spite of the fact that practice doesn't bear it out. Dead Calm did well because it was good and everyone said so, Dead Bang did badly because it wasn't, and ditto. Deadly Pursuit is an example of something that's hardly a title at all; more a title-oid, dreamt up to make the right kind of sound and fury but signifying nothing. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind - imagine running that one through the office. It would probably come bottom of the list, way below The UFO Connection or Alien Heat. Spielberg had clout, so the title stayed; and now it's emulated and imitated in ads, headlines… and, of course, in the titles of lesser, lousy movies.

The fact of it is that the title doesn't make the work. It's the work that gives resonance to the title. The Cherry Orchard. A Passage to India. A Clockwork Orange. Z. Look at how Reservoir Dogs entered public consciousness; utterly meaningless as a stand-alone, indispensable when shackled to the buzz that the film carries before it. It's the buzz that sells the ticket. Just as it's the buzz that sells the title.

I'm not saying stick any old rubbish on there, and it'll be better than some obvious crowd-pleaser. But when there's a title that the writer has settled on and lived with and believes in, I'm saying that there's got to be a damned good reason not to stay with it. Not as a matter of principle, but because it's a much better bet.

Books have titles already, of course. Sometimes books are honoured when they're adapted, sometimes they're plundered. They're plundered when they're bought, not for their value as works, but because there's some commercial-looking element buried in there and buying the entire book is the only way to get hold of it. In those cases the title almost invariably goes as part of the asset-stripping process.

But it's a strange thing, and I don't think it's just perversity on my part. There's a clutch of titles - Derek Marlowe's Echoes of Celandine, Ruth Rendell's Lake of Darkness, Marc Behm's Eye of the Beholder among them - that were glimpsed in film credits and took a hold in my memory. The point being that they were all titles of source books, but not of the films derived from them. The film titles are forgotten. But the originals seep through, like a stain through wallpaper. I'm not dogmatic about this - it would be hard to go to the wall for A Running Duck (Cobra) or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) - but I think it tells us something that ought to be as obvious as it is profound.

If it's clean and simple and it fits, leave it alone.

So when the propositions come up, what answers can you give? "To stick in an American actor for purely commercial reasons would blow the integrity of the piece, which is its biggest asset. And the title should stay as it is, for exactly the same reason."

That ought to be enough to do it. It never is, but it ought to be.

First published as part of the Craft Notes column in the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.