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The 'Jack Reacher' Formerly Known as 'One Shot': What Makes Movies Change Their Titles?

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Dec 20, 2012 | 2:28pm EST

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Jack Reacher

Upon hearing early announcements of a developing film adaptation of Lee Child's crime thriller novel One Shot, fans of the author were likely pleased. But even those unfamiliar with Child's writing might have caught wind of the title and donated some intrigue: One Shot. Immediately, you know what sort of subject matter you're dealing with. You know the genre and attitude of the movie, and, if you're familiar with the "One shot, one kill" motto of the military sniper community, you know that the central character might even have ties to the armed forces.

But somewhere along the line, Paramount Pictures decided a re-branding was in order. A shedding of this accessible, inclusive title, and an application of a moniker more "in-the-know": Jack Reacher. The adoption of the name of Child's recurring title character, embodied in the movie by a straight-faced Tom Cruise, as the movie's title is a curious move. What exactly makes Jack Reacher preferable to One Shot? The argument of pandering more directly to the literature's fans can be quelled by the simple fact that anyone who loves the books would obviously be familiar with, and enticed by, the title of one of them (One Shot is the ninth Jack Reacher book in Child's series). And anyone who doesn't know who Jack Reacher is might automatically be turned off by the title. There's something kind of creepy about the name, after all.

But as odd a choice as it may seem, the act is hardly unprecedented. Earlier this year, a very similar situation took place when the James Patterson novel I, Alex Cross was brought to screen, initially intending to maintain the title verbatim but instead dropping the first person pronoun to result in a film titled Alex Cross. And quite a film indeed. Another 2012 example is found in the science fiction adventure film John Carter, which preferred this highly generic nomenclature to the source material title John Carter of Mars, hoping to deter adversaries of the sci-fi genre (forces behind the film insolently categorized this demographic as "women").

And the pattern continues in our journey back through film history: Tonight, He Comes became Hancock. Anhedonia became Annie Hall. So many films have upheld the practice, and always with the most generic sounding names imaginable, in lieu of something "stranger," albeit plausibly more gripping. While the ideas of the military, of Mars, of big fancy words meaning joylessness might each be divisive, they at least call for some opinion. How strongly can you feel either way about some dude named Jack Reacher or John Carter?

The habit seems to lend to Hollywood's preference to play it safe than to experiment. Sure, no one might love a John Carter movie by title alone, but no one will hate it either. On the other hand, there are people out there who really can't stand Mars. Or at least that's what Disney has been telling us. Personally, I love Mars. Neptune's a douche, though.

And yes, the naming of the movies does not change the content of these films — Annie Hall would have been a masterpiece even as Anhedonia; Alex Cross would have been a jambalaya of nonsense even with an I, in front of it — but it might change our attitude towards the movies while watching, and in turn the viewing experience. When we enter John Carter of Mars, we're thinking of one thing: another planet. When we enter John Carter, we're thinking of that dude who used to eat glue in our second grade class. When we enter the alternative-universe's future film One Shot when it opens on Dec. 21, we'd be geared up for guns-a-blazin' and some high-stakes crime. When we enter Jack Reacher, we'll be geared up for a guy we might like to set up with our cousin Stacy.

The pros of this? Relatability. Maybe we feel closer to characters when their names are front and center. But the cons far too many to compensate for this. Alienation of any truly passionate fan bases. The feeling of abandonment for the more niche themes therein. The real problem is show business' unwillingness, in cases like these, to embrace its will to be weird. But don't keep pulling Kings Speeches, Hollywood. Playing it safe might keep everybody satisfied, but it doesn't make anybody happy.

[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures]

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