Why The Pope Must Die was forced to change title

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Following Nuns On The Run, Robbie Coltrane in The Pope Must Die looked like another box office hit – until the film hit an obvious problem.

There weren’t too many British comedies heading into cinemas in 1991, and that meant that in the run up to its release in the UK, there was a fair amount of interest in the movie The Pope Must Die.

Put together by The Comic Strip team, it had Peter Richardson directing, working from a script that he’d co-written with Pete Richens. In the lead, meanwhile, was Robbie Coltrane (one story suggests that Steve Martin was offered the lead role, but turned it down). It arrived in UK cinemas in June 1991, a month ahead of Terminator 2.

Still, the film opened to not hugely enthusiastic reviews in the UK, and I’d imagine that all concerned wouldn’t call it their best project. But it was an ambitious idea, and the fact that it got made at all in the early 90s was some feat in itself.

Sadly, though, any plans to make up a bit of cash when the movie went to America were nixed when it got caught up in a bit of censorship bother.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the comedy’s title, The Pope Must Die presented some sizeable challenges when promoting the film in the States. To such a degree that many mainstream media outlets refused to let the film’s US distributor – Miramax – advertise it. As such, the major American TV networks said no, and lots of newspapers too.

In truth, when it came to the newspapers, it didn’t help that the poster featured Coltrane – who had enjoyed a US success when Nuns On The Run was imported a year or two before – dressed in his papal gear, whilst a nun, well, let’s just say stands aside him in the not the usual nun attire (I’m making an assumption there).

The Los Angeles Times for one explained that the advert was “too religious and sexy”, although which it was primarily objecting to was unclear. Changes were suggested to the images, but the newspapers weren’t budging.

In the end, it was a suggestion from Robbie Coltrane himself that broke the impasse. He noted that they could just add the letter ‘t’ to the end of the title for the US release, and that’s ultimately how The Pope Must Die came to be known in the US as The Pope Must Diet. Coltrane had got the idea from seeing posters for the movie in London having being altered by passers-by to add the ‘t’.

That said, it wasn’t a foolproof strategy to change the title. The pope needing to shed a few pounds wasn’t enough to persuade at least one US television network and lots of its newspapers to carry promotions for the film. And whilst there may have been hope that the furore would raise the profile of the movie, it was not to be. The film entered US cinemas and left them soon after, with under $1m to its name. In fact, from what I can work out, it never got a DVD release either.

One final nugget here too. The movie got a further title change when it made it to Italy, where it secured a release. This time, it was called Il Mio Il Papa E Il Papa. Or, translated, My Dad Is The Pope. Who knows: maybe that would have played better in the States…

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