Monday, 8 June 2020

The problem with generic titles in Dinosaur Media


Fig. 1: You can barely get more blunt with a title like that, which is a shame as this was quite a good and charming book for the time.
Ever been in a situation where you remember a paleontological book, movie or documentary from a long time ago but cannot for the life of you remember the name because it was just something along the lines of “Something something Dinosaurs”? In the rare case that you did end up rediscovering it again, did you also find out that it shares the same or a similar name with a bunch of other media, so to avoid confusion in discussions you have to specify the date or author? At least I had these situations a number of times. Just to demonstrate how much this has irked me I wanted to list some of the most notable examples I have encountered over the years:
  • When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is the name of a 1970 stop-motion caveman movie, but also of a 1999 documentary narrated by none other than Jeff Goldblum and of a popular 1985 book by David Norman and John Sibbick. Dinosaurs of the Earth is also the name of a 1965 children’s book by John Raymond. The name is also similar to the 2001 Discovery Channel documentary When Dinosaurs Roamed America.
  • Dinosaur Planet is the name of a 2004 Discovery Channel documentary, but also of two novels, one by Anne McCaffrey and the other by Stephen Leigh. Planet Dinosaur is a 2011 BBC documentary, while Planet of the Dinosaurs is a 1977 sci-fi movie. Planet of Dinosaurs is the name of a 1993 documentary made in Italy. As a little bit of trivia, the Rare-game Starfox Adventures was also originally going to be called Dinosaur Planet.
  • The Age of Reptiles is the name of the famous Rudolph Zallinger mural (as well as the accompanying guidebook), but also of a series of comics by Ricardo Delgado. Recreating an Age of Reptiles is also the name of a Mark Witton book about paleoart. Age of Dinosaurs is the name of an awful mockbuster made by The Asylum.
  • The Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs by Julian May and The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs by Adrian J. Desmond are both books that dealt with the Dinosaur Renaissance and came out around the same time. The difference is that the former was mainly aimed at children and featured original paleoart while the latter was aimed at adults and featured other artists’ works. Nonetheless this was so far the one case where I accidentally ordered the wrong one online, mistaking it for the other.
  • Dinosaur Island is the name of a 1994 B-movie as well as that of a 2014 one. Dino Island is also the name of a 2002 zoo-simulation game.
  • Carnosaur, a 1984 novel by John Brosnan and Carnivore, written in 1997 by John Leigh, are both horror stories dealing with resurrected dinosaurs (the former being notably six years older than Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park). Carnivores is also the name of a series of dinosaur-hunting videogames.
  • The Lost World is the name of the famous 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle novel and all of its adaptations, but also of the second Jurassic Park novel and its movie adaptation. The similar-sounding Land of the Lost is also the name of a 70s TV show, its 90s revival and its 2009 movie adaptation. The Lost Lands also happens to be the name of the home-dimension of Turok, our favorite native American dinosaur-hunter.
  • The Land before Time is a 1988 Don Bluth animated movie, The Land That Time Forgot is a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you are German, the latter also comes awfully close to The Lost World, as that title is usually translated to “Die Vergessene Welt” (The Forgotten World) by convention.
  • Prehistoric Monsters Revealed and Monsters Resurrected are both awful documentaries made by the History and Discovery Channel respectively. Both titles are also similar to Prehistoric Predators and Prehistoric Creatures, two documentary series produced by National Geographic. Then there was also a 2009 Discovery Channel documentary literally just called Prehistoric.
  • The New Dinosaurs is the name of both the Dougal Dixon spec-evo book and of a regular dinosaur-book by William Stout.
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs is a famous book by David Norman with illustrations by John Sibbick from 1985 but some variation of that title has also been the name of what feels like every dinosaur book made by Dougal Dixon since the 90s. Many other books abound which are just called “The (illustrated) Dinosaur Encyclopedia”, “The Dinosaur Atlas” or some variation thereof, the most recent example being Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs: The Theropods by Ruben Molina-Perez and Asier Larramendi.
  • In a similar vein, 1983 saw A Field Guide to Dinosaurs by David Lambert, while in 2010 Gregory S. Paul wrote The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (sometimes also just called Dinosaurs: A Field Guide). There also exists the Jurassic Park Institute Field Guide and the Jurassic World Dinosaur Field Guide, both written by Thomas R. Holtz Jr.
  • Both in paleontology and history various titles exist which pay homage to Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The most recent one is Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Most will however be a variation of “The Rise of X”, such as The Rise of Birds by Sankar Chatterjee, Rise of Amphibians by Robert Carroll or The Rise of Reptiles by Hans-Dieter Sues.
  • The number of books simply named “Dinosaurs”, “Dinosaur”, “Dinosaurs!” or “Dinosaurs: [Insert generic subtitle]” is too big to list, as is that of B-movie-titles trying to rip off Jurassic Park.
At least two problems are created by this vast amount of similarly named media. The first is the aforementioned confusion that this causes in us, the readers/viewers/customers. Imagine trying to easily look up Dinosaurs (the 90s Jim Henson sitcom) or Dinosaur (the 2000 Disney movie) on the internet, especially when chances are high that you don’t even remember their names for being so bland or when exactly they were made by whom. Numerous times I had to differentiate Planet Dinosaur from Dinosaur Planet by also naming the networks, years and who made them to avoid confusion in discussions. In a sort of poetic way the lack of original names resembles the trouble paleontologists have to deal with when a certain genus is overlumped (just think of all the theropods which have been mistakenly classified as Megalosaurus throughout history). The second problem is that behind some of these generic and bland names lie actual notable and great pieces of media, but because of their naming they become easily forgotten or confused with others, obscuring the prominence and legacy they could have had. A book should not be judged by its cover, but many unfortunately are.
Fig. 2: Paleontology books with memorable and/or intriguing titles. Vintage copper-dinosaurs added for further entertainment (Image taken by me).

Now is there a way to fix this problem? On one hand it seems that such situations just become unavoidable. The number of names you can come up with for media centered around one particular subject simply is finite. If you write a book that is an encyclopedia of dinosaurs it becomes quite difficult to name it something that differentiates it from other dinosaur encyclopedias. Same goes with books aimed at children which are just meant to be an introduction to dinosaurs. On the other hand, there have always been good pieces of paleontology-related media with unique, interesting and memorable names. Just take one of the all-time classics of dinosaurology: The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert T. Bakker. Even if you do not know anything about its contents, the title evokes interest and especially intrigue. “What exactly could be so heretical in the study of dinosaurs?”, the reader asks themselves as they look at the cover of two fighting John Gurche behemoths. Stephen Jay Gould’s essay-collections concerning dinosaurs have also had eye-catching titles, such as Dinosaurs in a Haystack and Bully for Brontosaurus. Now you could argue that one can only name their book in such a way if they are, for example, arguing for a certain view. Bakker was not writing a general introduction to dinosaurs, but making a big-scale argument for the warm-bloodedness of dinosaurs which ran contrary to the time’s orthodoxy, hence the name. However, there are a lot of notable books about general subjects, or which serve as general introductions, that possess unique and intriguing titles. Oceans of Kansas by Michael J. Everhart is a great overview of life in the Western Interior Seaway of the Late Cretaceous. A Sea without Fish is a book by David Meyer and Richard Arnold Davis about life during the Ordovician period. Splendid Isolation by George Simpson and Horned Armadillos and Rafting Monkeys by Darin Croft are two good books about the extinct mammals of South America. Gaining Ground is Jenny Clack’s great book on the evolution of early tetrapods. Jurassic West is John Foster’s book about the dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation. Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould is perhaps the best-known book about life in the Cambrian. Notice what they all have in common? None actually name the general subject of the book in the title, but circumscribe it in a poetic, eye-catching way that gives it character. They do not use simple keywords like prehistoric, monster or dinosaur. Apart from Jurassic West, none of those paleontology books however have dinosaurs as their focus and for many other books that do, it can become quite difficult to create a title that does not mention its subject-matter by name. This makes he titles easily fall into the trap of sounding generic. Nonetheless, do you think the Jurassic Park franchise would even have half the success it enjoys today if Michael Crichton named his original novel something like “The Dinosaur Zoo”? I would rather read Billy and the Cloneosaurus than that. Even if the word dinosaur has to be used in a title, there are methods to avoid falling into generics, such as not making it the the main focus. A good example of this is the documentary Walking with Dinosaurs. The focus in the title is not the word dinosaur, but rather the concept of the show, which is that the creatures are filmed as if real cameramen were there alongside them. This way, the dinosaur-part of the title also becomes interchangeable, allowing for shows under the same name and format, but about different subjects, such as Walking with Beasts and Walking with Monsters. This is likely one of the reasons why this BBC documentary managed to become such a well-known franchise with multiple spin-offs, books and even a live show under its name. Even simple books aimed at children can follow such naming conventions, such as Prehistoric Monsters did the strangest things from 1974, which seems to be well-remembered by many people probably still wondering what those prehistoric monsters were up to.

All of this was just a long-winded way for me to tell aspiring authors/filmmakers/videogame-developers to please just be more creative with their titles. It is not only helpful for us but also worth it if you want things to be remembered.

Related Posts:

Image Sources:
  • Fig. 1: Jackson, Kathryn/Matternes, Jay: Dinosaurs. Books for Young Explorers National Geographic Society 1972, cover.

1 comment:

  1. also: A Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Book by Henry Gee and illustrated by Luis Rey)

    ReplyDelete