A story by any other name

Peter Jackson has changed the title of the third Hobbit film from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies. So what, many might say. After all, isn’t this just marketing?

No. The title of a story matters. It sets the tone. It prepares your expectations. It says something about what you’re about to see. It’s a part of how you tell the story.

'I was blond and clean shaven when I started watching this film.'
‘I was blond and clean shaven when I started watching this film.’

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story about the military, about cold war style spy shenanigans, about people frozen in time. The name sets the tone perfectly.

The Book With No Name is a story about wise-cracking criminals and chancers, with a supernatural element thrown in. The attempt of the title to evoke something mysterious mis-sells the book, sets false expectations and generally doesn’t work.

Jackson knows what he’s doing. You might not agree with his approach to the Hobbit movies, but there’s no doubting that he’s a very capable film-maker. The change of name shows a shift in focus to epic warfare, away from the whimsy that lay at the heart of the original book. Sure, the battle was part of that story, but it was the culmination of a journey towards grandeur, not the focus of the story.

Jackson’s gone big with these films, and he’s clearly setting out his stall in re-naming the film. Personally, I think that turning the Hobbit into a multi-film epic in the style of The Lord of the Rings is a mistake, but given what he’s doing the re-naming is clearly the right choice.

Anybody got any good examples of stories with perfect names, or terribly misleading ones? I’m sure there are better examples out there than the first two that popped into my head.

Be gentle with the dragons

I’ve written a bit before about my nieces. They often give me pause for thought on how we interact with books and story, and have sometimes provided inspiration for my own stories.

Recently, my brother has been reading The Hobbit to The Princess, who is four years old. The version he’s reading is a comic book adaptation that he’s owned for twenty years, nicely illustrated and falling apart through cheap glue and years of obsessive reading. They’re already on their third time through the story together, and they’ve reached the part that she most struggles with – Smaug.

And in case by some weird happenstance you’re reading this and don’t know the plot of The Hobbit, there are spoilers ahead.

Anyway, the meaning of dragons is different for The Princess from what it was for me at that age. Despite her tender years, she’s already enjoyed a lot of revisionist culture, in which creators play around with roles and expectations. The dragons she knows are Donaldson and Scheffler’s Zog, and Dragon from Jane and the Dragon (both of which I love, but not half as much as The Princess does). These are dragons as heroes, often clumsy but always sympathetic. So the idea of a dragon as villain didn’t fit into her head the first time around, and Smaug’s death was a cause of great distress.

The Princess is over this now. She withstood this astonishing blow to her world view, and still loves The Hobbit. But it was a reminder to me to beware assumptions. Even a timeless monster like a dragon means different things to different audiences.