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Anodos

The Power of Titles

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Ever since I was little I've found I can have an intense emotional response to the title of a book or film - a response which sometimes leaves me feeling disappointed when I actually read the book or watch the film. Does anyone know what I mean? Apparently when Peter Bogdanovich was making Paper Moon, Orson Welles told him "That title is so good, you shouldn't even make the picture, you should just release the title!" - I know exactly what he was saying!

With that explanation, I'd love it if people could post some of the titles that sent a visceral thrill through them on first encounter.

Here are some of mine:

Dances With Wolves - I think I came across this in one of my Dad's hardline theocratic magazines from America; I have no clue why they were talking about this movie, but reading that title was like a jolt of electricity up my spine - it suggested something totally 'other', something wild, remote, mysterious... honestly, reading those three words was a numinous experience as a six-year-old. Looking back I have to laugh, as I'm sure the article was some deeply serious condemnation of the film, but I took nothing else in, and could only lift my eyes from the page in a thrill of wonder.

The Silence of the Lambs - again, this was totally divorced from context (glad to say I was not subjected to this as a child!), but the title alone has this strange beauty completely separate from its meaning - The Young Sheep Are Quiet just doesn't have the same ring.

The Eagle of the Ninth - I don't know if any of you have even heard of this; it's the book from which the recent film The Eagle was (loosely) adapted. I found it in my local library when I was five or six, and it was the first chapter-novel I read. I loved the book, but I'm not sure why the title drew me in so deeply - again it's much more than the literal meaning; it's like an echo at the edge of consciousness, a little like my response to Wagner or Mahler or the other great composers; it's as much to do with the sound of the title as the meaning.

The Shadow of the Wind - I'm fairly sure this was a title specifically designed to create this feeling, and I certainly fell for it. The book was great, but how could anything live up to that title?

(Actually, I remember that's exactly what C.S.Lewis said about reading The Well at the World's End, by William Morris - I'm glad to recall that Lewis was another sucker for the power of titles...)

Well, please join in! I'd love to hear what titles have really fired your imagination - and whether or not the book/film lived up to them!

Edited by Anodos

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Pretty much any Faulknerian title does it for me: Intruder in the Dust and Absalom, Absalom! stick out, particularly. There's something just a little stilted, perhaps, about them--but stilted in a way that catches attention, or demands it, or something.

Splinter in the Mind's Eye was the first Star Wars tie-in novel, written by Alan Dean Foster. The book itself ain't all that, but the title is pretty good (and calls to mind, probably deliberately, A Mote in God's Eye).

The Stars Like Dust, Pebble in the Sky, The Currents of Space--Isaac Asimov. These old s.f. titles were generally evocative, especially when combined with the cover art.

Pale Fire by Nabokov. Though perhaps that title gains power after having read the book.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof--Tennessee Williams.

Naked is the Best Disguise--Samuel Rosenberg. Subtitled "The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes." As to the book itself, I've not seen anything of its kind elsewhere--an allegorical reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories (with Moriarty as Nietzsche!). But the title itself has a quality about it: it seems almost too hard-boiled for a discussion of Holmes ("Today on NBC: Mike Hammer in 'Naked is the Best Disguise!'"), but there's a sly undercurrent of insight (the idea of hiding oneself by revealing oneself--to steal Žižek's Marx Brothers example, "Hey may look like an idiot [...] but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot!")

Speaking of Žižek, his books tend to have great titles: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (taking a line from The Matrix); The Fragile Absolute; God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse. They're all just opaque enough to be intriguing, suggesting pretty clearly the paradoxical nature of the books inside.

I'm sure there's more; I have several books that I've purchased/wish-listed based on the title and description alone: The Savage Detectives (Bolaño); Instruments of the Night (Thomas Cook); The Pale King (Wallace); This Gun for Hire (Greene). Etc.

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I'm a sucker for felicitous two-word combinations - Star Wars, Toy Story, and Blade Runner are outstanding examples, especially the first, which is very evocative (but only when it stands by itself). Pace Peter Chattaway, I like Die Hard as well. On the other end of the spectrum, I love long melodious titles with a rhythm you can dance to - Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, No Country for Old Men, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (the last isn't a film, but a play my school is putting on this semester). SDG was right to point out in his review that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the best Western title ever.

The flip side of the coin is the interesting question of bad titles. Complete-sentence titles don't usually do much for me, though There Will Be Blood is a notable exception. For example, in my opinion the best Star Wars movie has the worst title. I remember reading that 1776 was considered to have "a terrible title - on par with Oklahoma! and Hamlet." Except in very exceptional cases, I don't think the title will make or break a work, but finding a good title is an art in itself. However, a powerful title will definitely affect the way I think about a work. Imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark was called Blowing up Nazis Real Good. It doesn't bear thinking about.

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Rushmore wrote:

: Pace Peter Chattaway, I like Die Hard as well.

Oh, I don't mind the title. It's just kind of silly when you think about it. But it's certainly a better title for that movie than Nothing Lasts Forever, the book on which the film is (remarkably faithfully) based.

: However, a powerful title will definitely affect the way I think about a work. Imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark was called Blowing up Nazis Real Good. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Indeed. Especially since the actual title allows for the fact that Indiana Jones is just as much of a "raider" as anyone else. (I love the fact that Spielberg says he calls *all* the movies in that franchise "Raiders movies" rather than "Indiana Jones movies".)

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Indeed. Especially since the actual title allows for the fact that Indiana Jones is just as much of a "raider" as anyone else. (I love the fact that Spielberg says he calls *all* the movies in that franchise "Raiders movies" rather than "Indiana Jones movies".)

"Indeed" right back at you. Great titles often have that kind of ambiguity, and it's important.

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The Sound and the Fury was a novel I read simply based on the title alone, having little-to-no knowledge of its premise or Faulkner's style. It was a challenging read, to put it mildly. A Clockwork Orange also stands out to me as memorable and having just the right touch of obscurity, though it's not a film I'd ever want to revisit.

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Thanks for all the replies...

Of course there are so many different kinds of title which work in different ways - picking up on Rushmore's comment about long/melodious titles, here are some I love:

As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams; Landscape Painted With Tea; Between The Woods And The Water; The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea; The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting; Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles; Dance Of The Happy Shades; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Grass Is Singing; In Search Of Lost Time; If On A Winter's Night A Traveller; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning...

That's just a few!

(Btw Nathaniel, love the avatar - Colonel Blimp is such a great film/character...)

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

I Drink, Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine

The Bonfire of the Vanities

God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom

Rumbles Left and Right

Inveighing We Will Go

Happy Days Were Here Again

Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription; Notes and Asides

The Rum Diary

Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72

Gonzo Papers

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?

The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, Playback

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That's a good selection - I've always enjoyed Douglas Adams' book titles (random aside - I saw D.A's grave last year, and it had a little pot in front of it, full of pens and pencils; I almost wish I had taken one to write with, as Schumann did when he found a pen on Beethoven's grave; perhaps it would have enabled me to write fizzingly funny prose...)

Has anyone noticed how many good titles come from Shakespeare? There are several on this thread - The Sound And The Fury, Pale Fire, Something Wicked This Way Comes - and many more besides (Ill Met By Moonlight, for one).

I have a love/hate relationship with the titles of magical realism (as I do with the contents, come to think of it). Some are evocative - Chronicle Of A Death Foretold, One Hundred Years Of Solitude - while others come perilously close to self-parody

- Memories Of My Melancholy Whores being perhaps the worst, off the top of my head. I think Louis de Bernieres may have been gently poking fun at these with his own The War Of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts...

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Okay, here's a different question. I find myself wondering about a specific subset of long, whimsical titles: the ones that refer to other related works that don't actually exist. For example:

 

The second star wars movie with its subtitle Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and the first being retroactively subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope, long before episodes 1 to 3 existed or were expected to exist.

 

The video game titles I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game (needless to say, there is no movie nor anything other than the game) and Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress (there is no Chapter I; the game isn't a sequel).

 

A related but distinct phenomenon is the fictional backstories sometimes given to works of fiction. For example, Alexandre Dumas claimed in the preface that The Three Musketeers was simply a reprint of the memoirs of one Count de la Fère, who turns out to be a character in the story.

 

For some reason I think there are lots of other such titles, but I can't recall them at the moment. Does anyone know any other examples of this kind of title, or anything of its historical genealogy?

Edited by Rushmore

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A related but distinct phenomenon is the fictional backstories sometimes given to works of fiction. For example, Alexandre Dumas claimed in the preface that The Three Musketeers was simply a reprint of the memoirs of one Count de la Fère, who turns out to be a character in the story.

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs was the king of this: Tarzan of the Apes begins with "I got this story from someone who had no business telling it to me"--or something like that--and even his more fabulous tales [Pellucidar, for instance] carefully sets up a real-world backstory.

 

See also: S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, both of which used prefaces and footnotes to claim various sorts of realism--for instance, that "Ellery Queen" was alive and married in Italy and that he was authorizing the books on the condition of anonymity. The Queen books would take it one step further by inventing epigraphs--they would cite fictional books to lend gravity to their own adventures. I think Sayers did this at least once, too, but she's not as tied in to the conceit that the fiction is thinly-disguised fact. 

 

As far as titles go, though, I'm drawing a blank. 

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C.S. Lewis's "space" trilogy was supposedly based on someone Lewis knew -- the first two books, anyway. In Out of the Silent Planet, he says the protagonist's name "Ransom" is actually a pseudonym that Lewis has given him to protect his identity, and in Perelandra Lewis describes how he bumped into an angel while visiting Ransom's house (and he also includes a passage where Ransom ponders the significance of his name... which I guess means that Ransom isn't a pseudonym in that book). I can't remember if Lewis kept up the pretense for That Hideous Strength.

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I can't remember if Lewis kept up the pretense for That Hideous Strength.

 

Not really, although that book is supposed to be in continuity with the other books, so I suppose it's in the background. There is one point when Lewis says of a minor character, "I have not been able to trace him further."

 

Another good example that comes to mind is The Princess Bride, which is supposedly an abridgement of a much longer, more densely political work by S. Morgenstern.

 

What I'm really looking for, though, is titles, not examples of fictional backstories.

Edited by Rushmore

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