“…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” -from Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman. It occurred to me many of my favorite movies have a common denominator. They contained excellent voice-overs. It is one reason I admire Martin Scorsese. If done correctly, voice-overs are an effective way to give a new layer to the character, accentuate the setting, thread plots which move forward and backward in time, and link the visual narrative with the auditory narrative. It helped define film noir.
There’s a danger with using voice-overs. Many bad films use an open narration to tell what should be shown instead. Or, when a long film needs to be edited, a voice-over bridges a gap. We see faster than we hear. With bad voice-overs, the pacing is affected because action is faster than verbal description. The visual has to slow down and “wait” for the oral description to catch up. When a film uses voice-overs, there should be a sensory balance between eyes and ears. Consider two classics with effective voice-overs. In Trainspotting, the punk-rock score, the revved up narration by “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) matches with the frenzy of a heroin user. In this case, the craziness of the exterior contrasts with a calmer interior narration. The opposite occurs in Goodfellas. Character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) provides the inner trauma of his character through narration while the exterior world sees a hard mask. He shares the private world of the mob and the audience is privy to a subculture. By the time of Henry Hill’s devolution, we feel empathy. Scorsese just did this last year with The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, Martin Scorsese implements voice-overs in most all his movies. The Age of Innocence contains a favorite voice-over. The luscious language of Edith Wharton from her Pulitzer winning novel about the Gilded Age, for me, accentuates the beauty of the cinematography and the élite world of high society in New York City.
I respect filmmakers who challenge audiences by making us active participants. You’ve seen Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, and Orson Welles use the trope. As a genre, a characteristic of the Film Noir is the voice-over. The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard among fifty others made the voice-over famous. If you would like to learn more about voice-overs, I recommend this four-minute video about Malick’s use of the voice-over.
The Coen Brothers love voice-overs. Which one is your favorite? The Big Lebowski? I found Réka Kassay, Levels of Narration in Coen Brothers Movies fascinating.
The most popular example is Morgan Freeman’s voice-over in Shawshenk Redemption. I have my favorites, but I’d be interested in knowing yours. What are a few of your favorite voice-overs?