When is it actually okay to name your film after the main character?


One of the things that occurred to me while watching the Nicolas Cage film Joe is how many movies are unsuitably named after the main character. Can’t think of a good title? Don’t stress yourself, just call it the same thing as your protagonist. I have to say, it’s beginning to bug me.

I know that Joe is adapted from a book of the same name but that just makes it worse. It means that they have missed two opportunities to go for something better.

Sometimes it is okay but most of the time it is just a little unimaginative. Let me explain my theory as to when titling the movie after the lead is appropriate and when it’s not.

First of all let’s consider biopics. It is fine to name the film after the subject when they are already famous and their moniker is automatically going to draw a crowd. That’s fine, that’s just sensible marketing. It would have been unnecessarily bold for movies such as Lincoln, Chaplin, Senna, Spartacus, Ali and Elizabeth to have gone any other way.

Then there are the real life stories of people we may never have heard of. On these occasions I really feel they should be thinking of another title. Patch Adams, Erin Brockovich, Captain Phillips and Ed Wood meant nothing to most people before their respective films came out so seeing them on the poster had no value whatsoever.

Basically, if your movie is about someone famous enough to be recognised by just their surname you are fine, if not then try and think of something else. Sure you admire the people whose story you are sharing but it’s enough that you are telling us about what they’ve done. Let their history and deeds make them household names, not your movie. If in doubt always go the creative route, just as they did with Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, William Wallace in Braveheart and Frank Abagnale Jr in Catch Me If You Can.

If your story is about a musician then it’s easy, just use one of their songs (Walk the Line, What’s Love Got to Do With It) but if you want to be really smart and referential to the biopic tradition, use a name but one that is actually not their’s à la Mrs Brown.

The familiar name thing also works fine for well established literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, Dracula and Mary Poppins. Often with book adaptations though film makers abandon the perfect titles that are already in favour of this lazy convention. Neither Jack Reacher or Jackie Brown are as good as the titles of their respective novels, One Shot and Rum Punch. Come on Hollywood, think about it. There is a good reason why after twenty five James Bond films, there is not a single one that uses his name in the title.

The most common use of well known fictional characters lending their sobriquet to their movies is in the Superhero genre and this makes sense. The whole draw of the Batman story is that the guy is kind of a bat man and once again they are selling the film on a known quantity. You need a good epithet though, irrelevant of how well renowned your hero is. Kick-Ass works, Hancock doesn’t.

You tend to get the better Superhero titles with the sequels though. I clearly don’t mean just slapping a 2 or a 3 on the end, that is the laziest labelling of all, I mean adding a secondary title. I know some people hate films with colons but it Thor: The Dark World is a much more interesting name for a film than just Thor. Credit to the movies that do this right from the start of a franchise such as Captain America: The First Avenger, The Amazing Spider-Man and Batman Begins.

In fact, if you must do the whole main character’s name thing, the addition of an extra word or two works well in any genre. I refer you to Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Being John Malkovich, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and all the Harry Potters.

It is when films are dealing with original characters or stories that name titles rarely work. If your movie tells the story of an entire life and that life is remarkable then I can just about go with it. Forrest Gump I can live with and that film also gets a pass because the name itself is particularly interesting or relevant. Napoleon Dynamite, Donnie Darko and Stoker are okay for the same reason.

If your main character is extraordinary, magical, freaky or monstrous then that is fine too, so I’m happy to accept Edward Scissorhands, King Kong, Harvey, Dumbo, Shrek and E.T. On the other hand though, Paul does not work because although that little dude is not your average Joe, his name is completely unexceptional. ‘But that’s the whole point!’ I hear you argue. Nope, not buying it. Sorry Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I respect you guys and I liked the film but are you really telling me you couldn’t think of anything better?

All of this then leaves the following films, in addition to those let downs already mentioned, with no excuses: Rocky, Billy Elliot, Annie Hall, Jerry Maquire, Norbet, Alfie, Lassie, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, Billy Bathgate, Tommy, Beethoven, Arthur, Nanny McPhee, Babe, Akira, Arrietty, Annie, Barton Fink, Bambi, Zoolander, Johnny English, Hanna, Penelope, Salt, Ruby Sparks, Philomena, Hitch, Hugo and, bringing us back to where we started, Joe. Some of these are great films (some) but none of them have great titles.

Credit then goes to the makers of Tangled, A.I, Unbreakable, The Artist, 127 Hours, Notting Hill, The Hurt Locker, The Social Network and numerous others that could so easily have gone for the easy option. These people realise that simply naming your film after your hero is generally not the cleverest thing you can do.

6 thoughts on “When is it actually okay to name your film after the main character?

  1. Good points all. This is why ‘Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain’ is a much better title than Amelie.
    What’s your thinking on Dances With Wolves? I’m fine with it.
    Willow is a bit meh.

  2. I genuinely don’t understand your problem apart from that it looks a little lazy?

    Most of the time when films are called after their main character its because the film is very much about that character. You bemoan films like ‘Paul’ (which I wasn’t actually a fan of) but what strikes me about the title, is that Paul is a completely ordinary name for an alien. That’s the joke. Whether it’s funny or not is another matter.

    Or take ‘Lucy’ – which lead me to this post. In the film there is a thematic angle to her being called Lucy because the first ever woman was called Lucy, admittedly it is a bit weak but hey. The idea of ‘the first of a species’ is an important aspect of the film and way more important than the actual drug. If the film was called “100%” or something along those lines then that would completely miss the point.

    Titles are, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively small part of the film. If you’re doing an analysis of a film then a quick mention of a irony/joke/prophecy etc of the title is there to serve as an amusing tidbit; a title is never the main substance of a film. I dunno, I just think that titles are such a trivial part of a conversation on films. If it annoys you fair enough but for me it’s the kind of thing where I will momentarily roll my eyes and carry on with my business of watching the film.

    Perhaps a better (and more fun) way to direct your uneasiness is when characters say the name of the film. It’s often cringeworthy, but I sort of love it haha

    1. It is that laziness that bugs me and personally I think the name of a film or book is important because it can get people talking about the film before they’ve seen it and it is the one thing about it that gets mentioned in every single conversation about it.

      We do agree on people saying the title of the film though, I love that too.

      Thank you for the comment.

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