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Old 09-05-2019, 03:58 AM
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When Meaning is Lost in Alternate Titles


So, for the second time (that I can recall readily) Iíve watched a British film based on a British novel of the same name, released in the US under an alternate title that completely removes all subtext, leaving it devoid of any symbolism and all but the most literal possible interpretation. No clever play on words, no deeper meaning, just a bare surface: the new title is what it says it is and means what it appears to mean at first glance, and nothing more. What makes it especially frustrating is that none of this (at least in my examples) is even due to the necessary complexities of translation. The films and their titles are already in bloody English!

The most recent example, and what prompted this thread, seems innocuous enough: Roman Polanski's The Ghost, based on Richard Harris' novel of the same name, and yet released in America as The Ghost Writer. What seems like a slight tweak to just clarify the title so people donít go assuming itís about a supernatural entity (and there isnít any hint at the supernatural in the movie either, so no harm there) actually completely obliterates the deeper meaning. Unfortunately, I donít think I can explain more without spoiling it.

But before that, thereís a film I saw a while back called Regeneration, at least in the UK, which is (in my view faithfully) adapted from a novel by Pat Barker, also of the same name. Itís a fictionalized imagining of a real in moment in history in which the poet Siegfried Sassoon, at the urging of his then-friend and would-be famous author Robert Graves, allows himself to be holed up in a looney bin (hey, Iím using one of the fictional characters' own words to describe the situation) to receive treatment from a noted British psychiatrist of the time, Captain W. H. R. Rivers, rather than persist with his loud anti-war message and face a court-martial. Oh, and the poet Wilfred Owens is there too (as he was in real life).

On one level, itís about regeneration in the sense of trying to recuperate from war-related psychological traumaóshell shock, if you will. But more broadly itís about broken spirits coping with war, whether due to front line trauma or the experience of treating and interacting with those people, and on yet another level it refers to a dream Rivers has about an old colleague of his (also based on a real-life person) who did experiments on nerve damage and... regeneration of said nerves. Due to the ethical ramifications of trying to experiment on a human with a conveniently (surgically) severed nerve in a laboratory setting, this doctor experimented on himself by having the radial nerve severed in one arm, leading to a lasting impairment which he then attempted to describe over the course of several years. Rivers participated in this study, but in the dream his friend instead drives the scalpel to Rivers' own arm. I think the point of this relatively brief mention of a historical incident and itís supposed effect on Rivers, with wording that explicitly harkens back to the title, is that in trying to heal, or study ways of healing, the healer himself may be wounded. And of course he, Rivers is, psychologically scarred (at least in the fictional account) by his experience of trying to treat those with war-induced psychological trauma. Particularly as his treatment, if successful, may result in a patient being sent back to the trenches, perhaps to die. And if his treatment isnít successful... well, that kind of sucks too, doesnít it? Having failed to heal them, they will endure lasting impairment from their (psychological) injuries, just as his friend did not fully heal from the experiment to his arm (which, again, in the dream is to Rivers' arm, as he is tormented in his waking moments by the moral dilemma of healing men so that they may go and experience further trauma. Hmmm...)

See how all that ties into the title, Regeneration? One word, yet so deep. Of course the US release kindly changed the title to Behind the Lines. Because thatís where the main action of the film takes place. In a hospital, geographically behind the lines. Get it?

Anyway, add on, discuss, or donít. Whatever.