Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

What's in A Name? Literary Titles That Never Made It

Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called 'em stench blossoms.
The Simpsons, Season 9, Episode 2

Revising what one has written is a key part to the writing process, and famous authors struggled with it just like everybody else. Vladimir Nabokov said, "I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers." Roald Dahl was convinced that "good writing is essentially rewriting."

Rewriting the body of the work is one problem, but what about revising the title, the way a work will be known for all time? Literary history is filled with titles that "almost were," and they are difficult to embrace, perhaps because the titles we know are so comfortably familiar.

Nabokov's own Lolita was originally called The Kingdom by the Sea, which is a reference to Poe's poem Annabel Lee. There is another Nabokov novel that cannot seem to decide what it is called — Ada or Ardor, the last word of the title being a term to describe an intense feeling, usually of eagerness or love.

Dickens' David Copperfield was almost known as Mag's Diversion (when the character's last name was Mag), and while diversion has several meanings, such as "a turning away from a main course," or "something that amuses," which could apply to many things in the story, this title arguably robs the story of weight and significance.

Peter Benchley wrote a very captivating book he originally called Leviathan Rising. It seemed like an appropriate title, because Benchley wrote a water-based adventure and a Leviathan is a sea monster, one that is usually associated with whales. Benchley, however had written about a shark, and decided to retitle the novel to focus in on what was truly scary about his Leviathan. Benchley retitled his novel Jaws.

Of course, Benchley sold the rights to his novel to the movies, which brings us to the special considerations of using a title for a film. A long, unwieldy title is often the first thing to change when a book becomes a film. Sometimes length can be a deciding factor.

When Philip K. Dick's short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became Blade Runner for the movies, it was a trade of an unwieldy title with a very common reference for a short title that was a complete mystery. The movie is something of a classic, and now people know what a "Blade Runner" is, but unless you read the short story, no one knew in 1982.

George Orwell's 1936 novel about status and money is called Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Aspidistra being a type of plant that comes to symbolize a level of comfort and domesticity the main character cannot stand). When the 1997 film version was released in the United States, it was called A Merry War.

Conversely, in the United Kingdom, the Francis Ford Coppola movie Patton was given the subtitle Patton: Lust For Glory. Even without the sexual connotations, "lust" here being "a craving or great appetite," this subtitle constitutes a judgment on why Patton did what he did, before the film has even started.

Titles are powerful things that can draw us closer to a book or repel us farther away. Would Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby be taken seriously today if it were called, as it was briefly, The High-Bouncing Lover? Would War and Peace by Tolstoy be read with the fervor it is today if we we assured, by its original title, that All's Well that Ends Well? Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth may single-handedly keep "mirth" alive as a noun meaning "amusement," but that wouldn't have happened if the original title, The Year of the Rose, had been used.

Imagining any of these works with these alternative titles opens up a game of "what if" that would challenge even the greatest theorist of alternative dimensions. Part of what one loves when one loves a novel may be the title, but considering how impermanent they seem, how many candidates there most assuredly were for that coveted spot, it may be the least important thing one loves when a book is cherished.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 18th 2015, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Catch 22.
Wednesday February 18th 2015, 1:50 PM
Comment by: Ray S.
Vikram Seth's 1983 travel book about a hitchhiking trip he made from northwest China to Tibet was originally titled "Of Trucks and Yaks." A female editor strongly objected, saying that women would be turned off by rough sound and feel. The book was retitled "From Heaven Lake," referring to the famous scenic spot in Xinjiang Province where the trip began, and did very well.
Ray Squitieri

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