Whenever a novel, comic book, video game or even theme park ride is made into a movie, invariably, changes are to make it work better for cinema. While most critics and fans tend to focus on the alterations made to plot, characters and themes when a pre-existing work is reimagined for the screen, it’s worth noting that the original titles of these stories also tend to fall by the wayside during this process, too.
Titles might not seem important in the grand scheme of things, but they really are. Not only do they pique our initial interest and help us decide whether to check a movie out, but they also provide additional commentary around the work and its themes, creating a complete storytelling package.
Sometimes, titles are changed for the better – either because the original title would be a hard sell, or was even just plain awful – but other times, the results are less successful. Here, I’ve rounded up 10 examples of big screen adaptations that ditched the title of their source material, including my verdict on which of these new titles do and don’t work!
10. Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow is a solid, if overrated (seriously – the ending makes no sense) action flick that succeeds thanks to great performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, and a clever premise that combines War of the Worlds with Groundhog Day. Directed by Doug Liman, the film is based on a Japanese light novel (think Young Adult fiction) by Hiroshi Sakaruza named All You Need Is Kill.
Liman and Warner Bros. Pictures opted not to run with this original title – which is admittedly not the most high brow you’ll ever hear – presumably because they feared audiences would dismiss the film as silly. It’s hard to fault that logic, however, All You Need Is Kill evokes a much greater sense of fun than the bland, by-the-numbers, studio focus group sound of Edge of Tomorrow.
And seriously, what even is the “edge of tomorrow”? I’m guessing it’s a reference to the constant cycle of life/death/rebirth that Cruise’s character experiences – which leaves him forever on the verge of the future – but even so, it still sounds a bit nonsensical.
Edge of Tomorrow is also an insanely forgettable title, too. It feels like it should be the subtitle for a bigger franchise outing; you can easily see it tacked onto the latest entry in another series starring Cruise – don’t tell me you can’t picture the poster for Mission: Impossible – Edge of Tomorrow…
Verdict: All You Need Is Kill could have discouraged prospective viewers, but still seems preferable to the dull alternative that is Edge of Tomorrow. It might have been best find a middle ground between the two options; the studio seems to agree, as the film’s “Live. Die. Repeat” tagline was used as a subtitle on Edge of Tomorrow‘s home release packaging.
9. The Hobbit trilogy
Hoo-boy, this is a tricky one. For starters, the title of each of the Hobbit movies is – in theory – The Hobbit, with all three instalments featuring a subtitle to differentiate the different parts of the trilogy. However, none of the films uses the full title of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, namely The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. So I’ve included the entire trilogy of films on the list, especially since – unlike their work on The Lord of the Rings – director Peter Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens devised their own subtitles for each movie.
When The Hobbit adaptation was originally conceived, it was intended to comprise two films. As work on the films progressed, the filmmakers decided there was too much material for the runtime available, and a third film was announced, which was called There and Back Again.
So far, so good, and we were back to at least one film in the series titled The Hobbit: There and Back Again. But then work commenced in earnest on this third outing, and Jackson made the decision to rename it The Battle of the Five Armies, with Sir Pete explaining on the official Facebook page that There and Back Again no longer fit the plot of the film he was making.
Purists will likely quibble over the exact wording of this new title – strictly speaking, Tolkien labelled the conflict the “Battle of Five Armies” (without the “the”) – but most fans will agree that Jackson is pretty on the money when it comes to the third movie being less about Bilbo’s journey than it is about a quintet of armed forces going head-to-head.
Verdict: The reasoning at the heart of the decision to drop the “There and Back Again” element of the novel’s title is hard to fault. But losing these four words means sacrificing some of the naïve, Hobbit-like charm of the story, and is another reminder of how Bilbo was increasingly sidelined over the course of his own trilogy. Jackson has intimated that he’d like the trilogy’s box set to carry this subtitle, so here’s hoping that happens.
Dick King-Smith’s 1983 novel The Sheep-Pig introduced the world to Babe, the little pig who dreams of becoming a sheep dog. When director Chris Noonan took the reins on the 1995 adaptation of King-Smith’s tale, rather than sticking with the original title, he elected to go with a shortened version of the header used by the book’s US publisher: Babe.
In a lot of ways, The Sheep-Pig is a more informative title than Babe, which suggests at best a raunchy teen comedy, and at worst…well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. Heck, it could also just as easily be mistaken for an ultra-low budget horror flick! And kudos to Noonan and Universal Pictures for at least running with the US title (sans The Gallant Pig as a subtitle), which not only references the cute wee porker at the centre of the story, but suggests the story’s inherent warmth, which played well in trailers and promotional materials.
Indeed, it’s kinda hard to imagine a film called The Sheep-Pig earning $254.1 million at the box office, or garnering a Best Picture Oscar nomination, for that matter…
Verdict: An improvement on the book’s original title, and a fine example that book-to-screen changes aren’t always a bad thing.
7. Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is a pretty loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 19th Century novella Heart of Darkness. Rather than follow the plot of the original story beat by beat, director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter John Milius instead focused on its themes of obsession, expansionism and the darker side of human nature, updating the setting from the European Colonial Period to the Vietnam War along the way. With all these changes, a new title seems only fitting, and Apocalypse Now certainly conveys the general feeling in the air when the film was released in 1979 that the end times were at hand.
Verdict: A split decision, as both titles work equally well for the source material. That said, while Heart of Darkness is a great thematic title – evoking the story’s underlying theme of the bleakness that exists within the human psyche – given how much the movie deviates from the novella, going with a different name wasn’t a bad idea.
6. Field of Dreams
W.P. Kinsella’s novel about Ray Kinsella, a farmer compelled to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield which soon plays host to the spirits of legendary former players, is called Shoeless Joe, after one of the book’s spectral ballplayers.
When the 1989 big screen version rolled around – starring Kevin Costner as Kinsella and Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe – the Universal Pictures decided to rechristen the movie Field of Dreams. To be totally honest, neither of these titles is overly arresting. They don’t give much of a hint regarding what the story is about, and hey don’t provide enough of an incentive for curious moviegoers to find out.
Shoeless Joe mostly appeals to baseball aficionados able to recall the names of players banned in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal; , to the rest of us, it sounds like a Depression-era drama. For its part, Field of Dreams has the saccharine tinge of a Lifetime Movie title, rather than a sports drama-meets-magical realism tale about America’s favourite pastime.
Verdict: Frankly, both these titles are strike outs. Since I have to choose, I’m going to go with Field of Dreams, mostly because that the film racked up a decent box office haul and nabbed three Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), indicating that this adaptation’s revised title clearly didn’t do it any harm.
One of the most frustrating challenges filmmakers face when working on a job is the forces beyond their control that impact the film, particularly those resulting from other movies!
Director Martin Scorsese found himself in just this position when adapting Wise Guy – Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 true crime tome about the rise and fall of Mafia gangster Henry Hill – as two other recent productions (Brian de Palma’s Wise Guys and CBS TV show Wiseguy) had already used almost identical titles. Keen to differentiate their film from these other projects, Scorsese and Pileggi (who co-wrote the screenplay together) replaced one bit of underworld slang with another, renaming the movie Goodfellas – another term for “wise guy” (someone within the criminal fraternity).
As with Apocalypse Now, this is a scenario where both options could have easily fit the bill. Both Wise Guy and Goodfellas are short and catchy titles that relate to their source material, and both provide an idea of what the story is about and entice you to want to know more (depending on your level of gangland knowledge). There’s also a nice irony to both, as regardless of whether you refer to the film’s characters as “wise guys” or “goodfellas”, these thugs are neither wise nor good.
Verdict: Almost too close to call, but I lean towards Goodfellas, since it’s marginally less “on the nose” and also evokes the “insider club” vibe of the movie.
4. Stand By Me
The film that would become Stand By Me started out life with the same name as the Stephen King novella on which it was based – The Body. To those unfamiliar with the original book, this title suggests another horror story similar to much of King’s other work, however, The Body is actually a touching coming of age tale centred around four boys growing up in 1950s America. Rather than being the focus of the narrative, the dead body of the title is really more of a MacGuffin: something for the boys to go looking for, setting the plot itself in motion.
Faced with such a potentially misleading title, Columbia Pictures, director Rob Reiner and the entire production team wracked their brains trying to come up with a suitable alternative, ultimately landing on Stand By Me. It’s not exactly the greatest title going, but it does elicit the friendship and loyalty that exists between the boys, and also ties in neatly – if a little tenuously – to the Ben E. King song of the same name which features during the opening and closing credits.
Verdict: Stand By Me is preferable to The Body in terms of selling the movie and its tone/genre, so in that regard it’s certainly an improvement – another title could just have easily done the trick though.
3. Die Hard
“Wait – that was based on a book?!” I’m guessing this was the reaction at least some of you had, the first time you discovered that Die Hard – the story of off-duty cop John McClane and his cat-and-mouse showdown with a group of terrorists in an LA high rise – began life as a novel. Nevertheless, it’s true that before Die Hard cemented Bruce Willis as an action star or introduced the world to the wonders of an Alan Rickman villain, it was a paperback thriller by author Roderick Thorp called Nothing Lasts Forever.
Now I think that’s actually a pretty cool title… for a James Bond movie. As the title for one of the greatest action movies ever made, it fails to really encapsulate the less fantastic, more blue collar quality of John McClane. Perhaps that’s why director John McTiernan and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza came up with the Die Hard label instead.
Sure, there’s a certain element of stupidity to the words “die” and “hard” sitting side by side – which undercuts the film’s surprising amount of smarts – but like McClane himself, the end result is direct and likeable.
Verdict: What better title is there for one of the most influential action blockbusters ever than Die Hard?
2. 10 Things I Hate About You
10 Things I Hate About You was a better than average romantic comedy that launched the big screen careers of Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the late, great Heath Ledger. It was also an updated retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, swapping out the 16th Century setting of the play for the late 1990s, and transplanting the action to an American high school environment.
While Shakespeare’s original narrative proved easy to adapt – bad boy Patrick (Ledger) is enlisted by new kid Cameron (Gordon-Levitt) to woo the unsociable Kat (Stiles) as part of a scheme to date her younger sister, Bianca (Larissa Oleynick) – the title posed a bit more of a problem.
For starters, the majority of young audiences are unlikely to know what a “shrew” is (it is, in fact “an unpleasant, ill-tempered woman characterised by scolding, nagging, and aggression”). But a far greater issue here is the inherent sexism in the original title, and what might have flown in Shakespeare’s day when it comes to gender politics is not going to work in a modern context.
Contemporary viewers – particularly women – are unlikely to warm to the idea of a young woman being referred to as “nagging” or “aggressive” just for being strong-willed, and they’re almost certain to baulk at the idea of her being “tamed”. With this in mind, director Gil Junger and screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith devised the 10 Things I Hate About You title, which references a scene late in the film wherein Kat reworks one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and also taps into the film’s teenage mindset to boot.
Verdict: It’s a rare thing to say that someone has improved on Shakespeare, let alone the people behind a 90s romcom. And yet, 10 Things I Hate About You fits this adaptation far better than The Taming of the Shrew ever would, and it does so without any unpleasant sexist overtones at the same time (which we can all agree is a Very Good Thing).
1. Blade Runner
Author Philip K. Dick was famed for his intellectual, philosophical approach to the science fiction genre, and many of his novels and short stories have ended up as big budget Hollywood films. Several of these adaptations scrapped Dick’s original titles, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – better known by film fans as Blade Runner!
Both the book and film version of Dick’s story follow the efforts of Rick Deckard to “retire” artificial life forms virtually indistinguishable from real humans. Along the way, each version of the story asks what it means to be human and whether machines can truly attain humanity – which explains the book’s pithy title.
Pithy or not, director Ridley Scott and co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher decided that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might not be the most marketable film title and jettisoned it early in production. First, they rebranded the movie Dangerous Days, before later settling on Blade Runner. Interestingly, this was actually the name of an unrelated script, which producer Michael Deeley bought the rights to solely to steal (or to be more kind “appropriate”) the cool-sounding title.
From here, Scott, Fancher and co-writer David Peoples revised the script, renaming special detectives like Deckard “Blade Runners”, somewhat justifying the movie’s new name .
Verdict: Much like with Edge of Tomorrow, Blade Runner doesn’t really mean anything (outside of the in-story justification devised after the fact). That said, it does sound extremely cool – so, while it lacks the thematic heft and sharp wit of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it’s an engaging title that makes you want to learn more, making it a better fit for the movie.