Why Names Matter: ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Dangerous Days’?
What’s in a name? Quite a bit, I would say. A good name is more than just a signifier, it’s a mission statement, a blueprint for the piece of work one is about to experience. Of course, the name is the name is the name, and more often that not we just accept what something is called. But think back to the great career of one Sir Ridley Scott, and his famed sci-fi classics from thirty years ago; you know, the one about the alien that runs riot aboard a drifting spaceship. Ah…what was it now? Oh yes, Star Beast. Terrifying! Oh, and let’s not forget the one with Harrison Ford sprinting through the incredibly distant future Los Angeles of 2019 – Dangerous Days, that’s the one! Thank goodness those glittering jewels in the cinematic science fiction crown weren’t named something lame and pedestrian, like…oh, I don’t know, Alien, or Blade Runner.
A good name should feel like silk, slipping comfortingly through the cortexes of the brain: natural, comfortable and just right. But I truly believe a wrong name has the power to sour the taste of an otherwise great piece of work, and acts more like mental sandpaper than silk. I never liked Star Trek Into Darkness as a title, for example; the lack of a colon gives me nightmares, and leaves me feeling like I need to rush through the four words quickly – I need a glass of water and a sweat-patch before I say it.
The problem is, you can’t overthink or overanalyse choosing a name. You just know if it’s right and you know if it’s wrong. If it’s wrong, something just feels out of place from the audience’s perspective; kind of like the feeling your neighbour would get if they saw you setting off out of your front door with your underpants on your head. You just have to pluck it from somewhere (the name, not the underpants), some jellied recess of your subconscious, the same part that retains tax bills, star signs, and Roman Emperors, that nebulous cloud of phrases and words, and run with it. Alternatively, it can be something breathtakingly pedestrian and grey; if your work is about a pedestrian and grey world, it will suit it. A name can come from anywhere, but it just has to fit (of course, I’ve never directed a single film or authored a single book in my life, and so this could all be complete hokum.)
Alas, I was kidding about Ridley’s films. Remove yourself for a second from this parallel reality in which Alien really was called Star Beast, and the makers of Blade Runner decided they preferred Dangerous Days, and consider if these renamed classics would have attained such high cinematic status. Alien is a short word, but it is to the point. There’s no frills or fat; like the film it denotes, it’s a perfectly concise, undistilled representation of mystery. It leaves you wanting more – just one short word, three perfectly spaced syllables, each sharp as a blade. Ail-EEE-un. It falls off the tongue like melted butter. All of that terror of the other, the dark, the unknown, melted down into one simple, five-letter word: Alien. It’s perfect!
Star Beast, meanwhile, sounds like a knock-off astrology set from the local jumble sale.
As for Dangerous Days, it’s certainly intriguing; there’s an ominous flavour to those words: we’re not just in for one ‘dangerous’ day, but many – in this melancholic, noirish world, the danger will go on and on. DANGEROUS DAYS. It’s alliterative and trips off the tongue. It’s strong, clear and rhythmical. It certainly leaves one wanting more, and it’s quite marvellous now I think about it. But…it’s just not right, is it? And anyway, surely every action or science fiction or fantasy story is telling the story of, in one sense or another, some dangerous days? Who wants to hear about days where everything goes swimmingly? It would be like calling a spy film ‘Man shoots gun’.
Not like Blade Runner. No no no. There’s two words which sound like they’ve always been destined to nestle snugly together on a film poster in the velvety darkness of your local cinema. BLADE – dangerous, sleek, and quick. RUNNER – we’re in action, we’re moving, we’re escaping. Put them together…Blade Runner. It sounds fast, mysterious, dangerous, and it conjures up nothing in my brain so much as a vivid image of a man obscured by darkness chasing away through the rain-sodden night in pursuit of, or possibly pursued by, some faceless antagonist. It just works. The scriptwriter Hampton Fancher got the phrase from a script by William S. Burroughs; presumably he was reluctant to preserve the name of Phillip K. Dick’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I think for good reason. Dick’s title is more cerebral, and pretty long-winded, pretty much like the film itself, you may think. But in the end, the title Blade Runner locks the focus of the story, vice-like, very tightly onto one man. Glorious.
The history of fiction, in cinema and literature, is littered with almost-names. Some we should be happy were binned, some we should mourn forevermore. ‘The Borrowers’, a whimsical English children’s book about a load of little people who live beneath the floorboards in a house, was written as ‘Under the Carpet’, and it was only in the very final stages of writing that the author Mary Norton presumably realised that The Borrowers sounds adventuresome, buckaneering and a bit mischievous (like the characters themselves), and that Under the Carpet sounds like a documentary on woodlice. J.K Rowling, a fantastic namesmith in my opinion, originally found herself torn when naming her fourth Harry Potter book, between Harry Potter and the Doomsday Tournament and Harry Potter and the Triwizard Tournament. I love the Triwizard Tournament name; ‘Triwizard’ is a great word, and you get that knock-out alliteration with ‘Tournament’. I guess the only problem was the sheer wordiness of the thing; ‘Triwizard Tournament’ is a lot of syllables, and saying it leaves you feeling like you have a mouthful of marbles, whereas Goblet of Fire is far more straightforward and, as good old J.K. herself noted ‘has that Cup of Destiny feel about it.’ Probably a sensible decision.
Many of the most beloved characters in film and literature were almost named something entirely different. Tolkien’s first thought was to name his famous wizard Bladorthin the Grey, and only later did he come up with the name Gandalf – and thank the Valar that he did. Bladorthin sounds more like some Orc jobsworth to me, perhaps serving up French Fries in the Mordor canteen. Tolkien did the right thing there. Bram Stoker, the creator of the original anti-suntan campaigner ‘Count Dracula’, initially named his creation the decidedly less terrifying Count Wampyr. Wampyr? How would he have sucked his victims’ blood when they were too busy killing themselves with laughter at his ridiculous moniker? Meanwhile, Arthur Conan Doyle coined the name Sherringford for his famous sleuth before settling on the more mysterious ‘Holmes’, and planned to name John Watson Ormond Sacker. Presumably, he decided that by giving a character who is meant to be grey and colourless, the everyman yin to Holmes’ sociopathic, flamboyant yang, such a flamboyant name, he was undermining the raison d’etre of the character. Watson is supposed to be the identifiable, ordinary one, so he needs an ordinary name. Sherringford and Sacker? Forget it.
The name isn’t everything, but it is something. It’s rarely discussed, because I think it’s a mysterious, almost mystical part of creating anything. When you give something (or someone) a name, you’re truly completing them, you’re allowing them to exist on their own merits and as their own entity – so the name better be good. I’m convinced that there must be some ancient hardback book, gathering dust in some back-alley bookshop somewhere, that could have redefined Western Literature as we know it, but it was never read because a terrible title crippled it’s chances of success. Alternatively, had J.K. Rowling named Harry Potter something less traditional, less reassuringly British, perhaps she would never have sold more than 10’000 copies.
Finally, consider one Mr. James Bond. As Ian Fleming envisioned him, he’s a faceless man, a ‘blunt instrument’. Fleming ultimately nicked the name ‘James Bond’ from a book on bird-watching, because ‘James Bond was much better than something more interesting sounding, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure’. How right he was. I don’t believe the twenty-fourth film in that would now be entering production had we had to sit through twenty-three films of the exploits of Peregrine Carruthers. Bond is a simple word for a straightforward character – it’s perfect, and it’s one of the reasons people love him.
Just imagine: ‘Carruthers… Peregrine Carruthers.’ God save us!
What do you think? Leave a comment.