P:O.V. No.2

The Film Title and its Historical Ancestors

or How did we get where we are?

Søren Kolstrup

The film title and the system of paratexts

A film title is a paratext. By "paratext" we understand one or more small texts "besides" the text (see Frandsen 91,81, Genette 87, 8-12). According to these authors a paratext is thus the title, notes, dedications, attributions, abstracts, leads and headlines.

Now the paratexts in films are rather specific because text (= film) and paratext use different media. If we consider trailers, title sequences, announcements and abstracts on TV as paratexts, then we have also visual paratexts, be it in "Hill Street Blues" or in "Charlot og Charlotte".

In the cinematographic distribution system the paratext is reduced to the simplest possible expression (we will leave aside the question as to whether or not the title sequence should be considered as a paratext) whereas in television distribution, the visual and the linguistic paratexts have seen their importance grow in recent years due to the rising competition among an increasing number of television channels. Frandsen refers to "this particular, but increasing part of texts in the modern information society" (Frandsen 91, 81).

According to Genette, who is only concerned with the reader of literature, the reader has to get through the paratext in order to enter the text "proper". From a theoretical or systematic point of view he is right in doing this - and his point of view fits in with the strategy of producers/distributors who try to get viewers/readers to enter their texts. But in actual fact, the television viewer is often little concerned by the paratext. S/he is zapping and thus avoiding the proper use of the paratexts. Solutions to this problem have been, on the one hand, to make television consist of self-containing segments in order to make the zapping easier (the main point in Ellis 1992, 145 - 152) and on the other hand, to increase the number of paratexts on the screen in order to capture those viewers who are not zappers.

Even public broadcast television uses an increasing number of paratexts, thus the two German channels, ARD and ZDF, use a lot of visual paratext, as does the Danish newcomer, DR2.

Here we should distinguish between paratext "outside" the text, such as announcements and recapitulations (after the text), and trailers, etc. "inside" the text in the beginning. The ways in which paratext and text are related in television depend on genres (types of fiction, types of news or of documentaries, types of entertainment) and types of channel: generalist or thematic, public broadcast or commercial.

But in this article we will limit our scope solely to the title of film/ television fiction, and will relate this to the historical use of titles or headlines within the world of printing or even before.

The functions of the title

Let us begin with a simple question and a simple answer: What is the function of the title? The prime function is to identify the text or the film. Without this initial identification we would not be able to talk about the film or the novel, sales promotion would be impossible, and researchers could not analyze the text! The title makes the unit. If the text has come to us without a title we must give it a title in order to talk about it: "Jellingestenen". King Harold did not bother to give the inscription a title. In a computer, the file must have a title, but even before the file gets its title it is called (in the Macintosh world) untitled 1.

Given this obvious function of the title we can indicate other (derived) functions:

The title is a sign to guide us through the television flow or the film pages of newspapers/magazines.

The title is a means for guiding our reception and our interpretation of a text, either by stressing a specific point of view or by giving us a résumé/ abstract of the film. Think of such titles as "Jerusalem" or "Ordet", where one word gives you an idea of the content, a first interpretation (Frandsen 91, 91), not to mention mysterious titles like "Et Dieu créa la femme" or "Belle de Jour," titles where the connotative meaning plays an important role. A well-known (as well as an unknown?) film maker may even give us an enigma: what is the sense of "North by Northwest"?

Given the various roles the title may fulfill, the main function of the film title might seem to be the film's promotion, in which case the title should be easy to remember because it astonishes/provokes, etc. at first.

Film paratext and the media or communication channel involved

Given the fact that the text in a film is audiovisual and that the paratext (= title) is textual, one might expect that film titles were different from titles of novels, short stories, dramas, etc. But as far as I can see, there is very little original in film titles. The combination of two media/communication channels in one global text (film + its paratexts) does not seem to have or to have had any importance. Most film titles would work as titles of novels and vice versa.

Nor does it seem that the distinction between the heteroreferential and the homoreferential aspects of the paratext (Frandsen 91, 83) change when we leave newspaper paratexts to have a look at film paratext.

Frandsen distinguishes between "transmitter 1, enunciator 1" (for the proper text) and "transmitter 2, enunciator 2" (for the paratext). This distinction works perfectly when applied to newspaper headlines. It seems to work too within the title system of novels, as well as within the film title system.

The only thing that should distinguish film titles from other titles is the total impossibility of anaphoric relations between the film text and the title. The title is too far removed from the film. This is the case of "Citizen Kane", even if the title is closely related to the voice over in the beginning of the film.

The audiovisual products and three models of mass communication

But film titles have changed over the years mainly due to the way films or other audiovisual products have been integrated into different models of cultural production and distribution (see Miège 1989, 177- 186):

The editorial model: The production is distributed as isolated items: the case of books and other texts, of records/CD's and of film tickets, that are sold as isolated items. These products have, compared to the products of the following models, a rather high longevity. It is a model that encourages the emergence of the stars, yesterday the classical Hollywood stars, today the rock stars.

The model of written information. This model implies a regular and periodical distribution. The products are normally made up of bunches of texts, i.e. newspapers or magazines. Each sale makes obsolete the products of yesterday (newspapers) or last week (magazines).

The flow model (mostly radio and television) is characterized by the necessary continuation of the programs, and it is a combination or interference of the cultural field and the informational field. As for the model of written information, it is one in which the products become obsolete when they have been shown on the screen (or listened to on the radio).

For each model, there is a specific economic and distribution organization. In many cases, however, it is useful for the owners/managers to play simultaneously on two models at the same time: the use of serial publication for novels, the use of film on television or even the different ways of pay-TV that turns TV into the editorial model.

The flow model is the younger model going back to about 1920, whereas the two others go back to the first half of the seventeenth century where they slowly emerged from an unstructured market where books, pamphlets, leaflets, songs were sold the same way (colportage). The periodical press began about 1610 in the Netherlands and the first large scale distribution of popular literature began in the 1630's with the famous "Bibliothèque Bleue" in France. Each system got fixed distribution forms at least in the second half of the seventeenth century, and already in the beginning of the nineteenth century we get mixed forms: the use of periodical novels, and from 1836 the use of the feuilleton novel in newspapers.

Each of the two systems or models has over these centuries built up its own and specific use of paratexts. The last newcomer is the use of headlines and leads in newspapers just before 1900.

When film definitely had become a medium in 1895, there were thus two models to follow, either the editorial model (film is like a novel or short story) or the information model (film is like a news item). Today there is no hesitation: a film is a unit like a book, we all know that! And therefor a film title looks like the title of a novel, we all know that too. We know that many films are based on novels and may have the same title as the novel! But in 1895, things were different and no one could know how film would be distributed, what it would be like and what kinds of paratexts would accompany film.

Brief historical view of the titles of cultural products

Most of the texts (epic texts!) from the Middle Age have simply the names of the main character as their title, or they have an indication of genre + the name of the main character: "Erec et Enide", "la Chanson de Roland", "le roman de Tristan". There are other possibilities as well: the title can refer to the content "Gesta Danorum", even ironically "Les Quinze Joies du mariage". In some cases, we have double titles as by Chrestien de Troie: name + specification "Lancelot ou le chevalier à la Charette".

In cases when we don't know who was the author or if there were one or more authors of the same text, we also don't know whether the title was made by the author or if it was invented later as a simple device of identification of the text, the identification being a necessity if the text was to have a "social life".

When the printing press began to print medieval texts, it took over the titles not only as means of identification but now also as a device for sale.

The turning of the century (1500) saw the beginning of a totally new genre, the ancestor of all modern mass communication, the leaflet/ flyveblade either as religious propaganda or simple entertainment (stories about crimes, about natural phenomena or catastrophes, about monsters - the stuff we get today in the tabloid press, in B-films and in low-status entertainment fiction on TV (X-Files).

The leaflets had a huge paratext: a long title with indication of genre to identify themselves and an even longer abstract to sell themselves. This is a system rather close to the modern headline and lead system. And it is linked with a new production technology and a new system of distribution: to be sold, the leaflets had to identify themselves and give the customer an idea of their contents:

"Histoire nouvelle et prodigieuse, D'une jeune femme laquelle pendit son père, pour l'avoir marié contre son gré, ses refus, ses regrets et ses larmes, avec un viellard, impuissant en amour, jaloux de son ombre, et qui la tourmentait sans cesse. Executée à Nice, en Piedmont, le 14 jour de mars 1606."
(quoted from Séguin 1964, 75)

When the periodical newspaper took over, the paratext changed. The newspaper's name became the important thing, and in the beginning there was very little use of headlines to distinguish the different items within the paper.

As for books, they seem to have taken over rather simple titles and have had somewhat restricted use of abstracts. But books have very often used the medieval system of proper name/noun + salient feature of the story (abstract, evaluation or the like). Here are some French examples from the beginning of the 19th century:

Angelo, Comte d'Albini ou les dangers du vice

Les brigands de Langerooge ou les ruines mystérieuses

Thérésia ou la souterrraine du château de Zeintelberg

(Schenda 1970, 193 - 197)

But as soon as we leave fiction and turn to "factual" books, the titles get longer:

Ein schönes Exempel von unserer lieben Frau mit einem armen Hirtenmägdlein, geschehen zu Dorfen in Unterbayern (Schenda 1970, 252)

By the end of the 19th century, the newspapers had finally found a form that persists to this day: the system of columns and headlines covering more than one column, the total spatial organization of news instead of the former temporal organization. The new spatial organization made the use of headlines and leads a must.

The invention of film titles

Films were very short at the beginning of the cinematographic epoch, just a few minutes in length. They were not always narratives but sometimes only descriptions of every day life, scenes of reality - at least up to the Méliès epoch. That is why the organisation of film consumption did not find its place clearly within the editorial model, but much more according to the film program from Aalborg about 1897 (Engberg 1977, 15) model. You bought a program not a film, each program consisting of several small bits just like news stories in the papers.

Filmprogram fra Ålborg fra omkring 1897

This distribution system and the fact that most films before 1900 were not narratives, had a great importance for the titles: they looked like picture captions, or like newspaper headlines, and not like the titles of novels or theater.

"L'entrée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat" could have been a caption and "L'arroseur arrosé" could have been a newspaper headline (telling a good story).

The program is from 1897 and contains a list of titles, short titles but long enough to give you an idea of the content. But the many items do not leave any space for abstracts. Like the small news in newspapers they don't nead a lead. Almost all the titles are like picture captions or headlines.

Some ten years later, films become longer, but the programs still have a length of about 30 minutes. What happens is that we get a paratext that is designed totally according to the the newspapers' system of headlines (= film titles) and leads (= abstract of the films).

The program on the next page includes a short film about animals (no lead), then follows a kind of fictional documentary with a very long caption. Then a reportage from military exercises near Copenhagen (with something resembling a newspaper head line) and finally you have a fiction, the kind of humoristic story that you would equally find in the newspapers from the beginning of the century.

At this time, the paratextual entrance to the film still adheres more to the information model and the titles still look like headlines. What is equally important, the film makers made efforts to produce documentaries and the like as reconstructions of reality and not fiction: the Dreyfus film of Méliès (1899) and "Le Couronnement du Roi Edouard VII" that was produced before the crowning had taken place and had been shown equally before the crowning. There was a hesitation in the beginning of the century: should film tell real life stories and thus have titles that designate the film as a metonym of reality, or should film be purely narrative, fictional and metaphorical and thus get titles like novels? In the first case, film would be a kind of visual reportage very much like newspaper reportage and with titles appropriate to this use of film. But when the Pathé brothers established the first cinema for news film in 1908, they made the first step toward distinguishing what should be the mainstream (fiction) from the informational film. And thus film got into the editorial model and the titles were free to take any shape, they only had to be clear and easy to retain - which did not exclude enigmas or puns. Film titles had to establish identity, to be a factor in the film's distribution. There were no more abstracts and the like. These paratexts were taken over by the press, film was no longer related to a written program functioning as paratext. This distribution of work between film and press has persisted.

Filmprogram from Copenhagen,
15.09.1906 (Engberg, 1977, 46)

The titles of audiovisual fiction and the flow model

But film is no longer the mainstream fictional entertainment product. This role has been taken over by the production of television fiction. Serials, series and isolated products fill up the television programs and several systems of titles are coexisting in the flow. The cinema films keep, of course, their original titles when shown on television (why?). Often, serials have only a name and then a number and even if each episode has a name, this name is rather unimportant, you don't sell the series or the serial in isolated episodes.

The serials are sold and seen because of the main character who gives its name to the entire set of episodes : Taggart, Morse, Nestor Burma, Navarro. Others (mostly German?) seem to prefer totally unpersonal titles (like many American series and serials): Grosstadtrevier, Ein Fall für Zwei, Tatort or they find a title that characterizes the main protagonist: Der Alte, Der Fahnder, Die Kommissarin, Die Eurocops. Only in recent years does this seem to have come to an end with Blank, Meyer und Jensen, Rosa Roth (she too Kommissarin), etc. As a matter of fact, what we see now is a very poor way of titling: an identification noun and a number, a system that has been taken over from the the flow of talkshows, entertainment programs, etc. Who would ever think of giving a title to a specific Jay Leno talk show? The flow model implies that once a text has been shown, it is "dead". So why bother with a title? Television fiction is in between the two models; it has taken over the flow logic, but at the same time, it has taken over the more lasting life of the products within the editorial model.

Of course these programs have a paratext helping us to get through: announcements on the channel, television programs in newspapers, and not to forget the lead in each program: the anchor and his/her helpers explaining what we are going to see. Only the isolated text (= film) still has a title of a certain importance. The rest is silence.

You might say that the title is a symptom: In the beginning, film titles looked like newspaper headlines because their contents were very like newspaper content. Then came the golden age of film when the titles made people dream when they looked at the stars. That's all Gone with the Wind. And now we have come to the age of anonymous audiovisual products using more anonymous actors: Melrose Place or Grosstadtrevier where the title remains even if the main actors have left the series and with them also the main characters (Mareike Carrière).


Ellis, John (1992): Visible Fictions. London and New York, Routledge

Engberg, Marguerite (1977): Dansk stumfilm I - II. København, Rhodos

Flichy, Patrice (1991): Une histoire de la communication moderne.

Frandsen, Finn (1991): Avisens paratekst. in Mediekultur 16, 1991.

Genette, Gérard (1987): Seuils. Paris, Seuil.

Miège, Bernard (1989): La société conquise par la communication. Grenoble, PUG.

Sadoul, Georges (1968): Filmens verdenshistorie. København, Rhodos.

Séguin, Jean - Pierre (1964): L'Information en France avant le périodique. Paris, Maisonneuve et Larouse.

Shenda, Rudolph (1970): Volk ohne Buch. Studien zur Sozialgeschichte der populären Lesestoffe 1770 - 1910.