Contemplating Voice Overs

In a previous post, in which I bemoaned the complete bastardization of twist-endings, I mentioned the movie Adaptation. In particular I mentioned the scene where, while Charlie Kaufman sits through a Robert McKee seminar, McKee interrupts a voiceover to slag them off, calling them “flaccid, sloppy writing.” At the time this had me thinking about twist endings but lately I’ve begun to wonder about the use of voiceovers and why there would be such hatred for them.

Two Caveats:

Caveat The First: Throughout this piece I have a tendency to include equate narration with voiceovers when, in the strictest sense, they are different. Anytime a movie cuts from one scene to another while leaving the words from the previous scene to run over the next is by definition a voiceover, even though it is not narration. I will say it now that I am not interested in dialog overlapping one scene to the next, or anything that might rightly be the result of creative editing. I’m interested only in that dialog, be they voiceovers or narration, which are aimed squarely at the audience.

Caveat the Second: It must be clear that I have absolutely no intention of giving the back of my hand to films using voiceovers out of necessity or due to budgetary issues. I don’t enjoy poking fun at a movie like The Last Man on Earth for its goofy voiceover when it was decidedly low budget affair and would have avoided voiceovers if it had the money. It’s the same as deriding Three Kings because it didn’t film in Iraq or Black Narcissus because it was not filmed in India. I’m not interested in trodding on films that, because of a lack of money, were forced to compromise. In fact, in those instances I give the film and its makers credit for doing whatever needed to be done to get it made. My only interest is in pointing out voiceovers from films that had a chance, had the pedigree, and still managed to muck it all up.

Bad Voiceovers

NBC aired a TV show some years ago called Boston Common. It was a fish out of water story, kind of like Perfect Strangers, only here we had a country hick hanging around Boston instead of Balki the inspecific-European hanging around Chicago. The show lasted but a year and really wasn’t very good so there isn’t much I remember about it other than one episode hinged on a final exam who’s only question was: What is the key to good communication? The answer: brevity. This is a principle worth remembering.

If the key to good communication is brevity then the key to good writing must be economy, which is something I’ve never been accused of. It shows character through action, not explanation; avoids two words when one will do; allows the audience to deduce and understand what is going on for themselves; and more than anything, it avoids obviousness. Naturally, some explanation and a little bit of obviousness is good, because nobody wants to be obtuse, but the devil’s in striking the proper balance.

Sadly, while many films have embraced the idea of economy in storytelling – though Transformers 2, at an ungodly 150 minutes, does not – they have done so using certain crutches or shortcut, one of which is the voiceover. Worse is that while voiceovers have long been useful tools to a filmmaker, lately they’ve become trite and something of a distraction. Perhaps this is because writers don’t view voiceover as an actual part of the movie – it never adds to the running time – or if it’s because director’s aren’t as skilled as they once were. Whatever the reason, the time seems right for considering what makes a voiceover bad, and what makes it good.

1. Engine Starters

Engine starters – maybe they’re properly called spark plugs – are voiceovers that serve no purpose other than to get the movie started and then, once the festivities are underway, are never heard from again. Usually the voiceover is spoken by some disembodied voice – in some cases it’s even one of the characters – dropping in to say “this is so and so” or “the times were like this” or whatever, before making like Keyser Soze and buggering off once the introductions are made.

Take Jeremiah Johnson, for instance, which begins with a shot of a man stepping off a boat and walking up to a trader and asking where he can find animals for trapping. It’s a straightforward scene and because the movie is called Jeremiah Johnson and stars Robert Redford, we understand that when the man steps off the boat, he is Jeremiah. Who else could he be? Well, just to save us any confusion a narrator drops in, lets us know the man is Johnson and then smacks us with some needless back-story which doesn’t even add anything like the story and which we very soon figure out anyway in a far more satisfying way.

The Departed, which will also take a kicking in a little bit, has an engine starter, as does The Third Man and The Brothers Bloom. I’m inclined to give the The Brothers Bloom a pass here, simply because the opening voiceover comes from Ricky Jay – who I love to see pop up in any film – and it is amusing and kind of sets the tone for the whole movie, but really, it is needless, doesn’t really add anything to the festivities or the fantastic opening sequence which it narrates. Plus, some people really hate it, so who am I to go against public opinion.

2. Saying too Much

There’s a rule in Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary, the ‘Dr. Exposition, I presume’ rule, which states that:

“All movie scientists who are neither the hero nor working for the bad guys are always doctors, and are, without fail, in the story only to present a crucial bit of information or explain some scientific concept to the hero…”

The quintessential Dr. Exposition appears at the end of Psycho, when, after the audience has seen Mother’s dead body in the cellar and Norman wearing her dress and wig and wielding a knife, a doctor come in to explain to us what we’ve already figured out.

Assuming the voiceover sticks around to see the end of the movie it usually tends to behave just like Dr. Exposition, preferring either to tell the audience what is going on, in a completely inorganic way, instead of introducing each piece of the puzzle into the story in a natural way and letting the audience work it out, or by stating something that is obvious to all or soon will be. Think of the opening scenes of The Departed as an example.  (I wanted to embed this video but Youtube wouldn’t let me).

As the film opens we hear Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello spout his whole philosophy of life which is supposed to make it clear to us that Costello is a bad guy. But just as he finishes his philosophy, we see him acting like a bad guy – shooting somebody in the head, hitting on the underage daughter of a shopkeeper – which he doesn’t stop doing until he is finally shot dead. That the voiceover disappears after that is one thing, but that we have to listen to it at all, when it is completely superfluous, is another. You would think that from a movie directed by Scorsese – who used voiceover to great effect in Taxi Driver and Goodfellas – would know better, but given that he recycled Gimme Shelter for the third time, maybe he thought it was best to lump it in there.

As an aside, my favorite part of The Departed was the rat running across the window frame at the end of the film, if only because it gave Ralph Wiggum the opportunity to tell us that “the rat symbolizes obviousness” in the Simpson’s episode, “The DeBarted.”

Still, it makes me wonder: what does it say about you or your movie when Ralph Wiggum can have a go at you?

Far worse than stating the obvious, though, is using the voiceover as a substitute for simply telling the story. Thing about Stand By Me, an otherwise fantastic film sometimes ruined by voiceovers. What do you know about the characters? Certainly, we understand that Gordie’s older brother died and the family is a bit of a mess because of it because we see it. But the rest of the kids? Everything we know about them is because the voiceover makes sure to tell us about them. Substituting voiceover for character development: RETCH!

Incidentally, I love that Wil Wheaton, aka Gordie LaChance from Stand By Me is the bad guy on The Guild.

A Crucial Question

A voiceover can certainly be short hand for laziness in writing but unfortunately, people today like things simple. They prefer being spoon-fed and voiceovers are a good way of giving the people what they want. Further, they are impressed more by things that sound good, rather than actually are good. This begs the question: are bad voiceovers the result of lazy writing or is it simply a product of the times in which we live?

What Makes A Good Voice Over

When done for the right reasons, and in the right way, and with the right care and craft, the voiceover can be a true asset to any film. It can illuminate, it can explain, it can be another character, interacting with the audience and carrying them along for the ride. At best, voiceovers make the film more accessible and enjoyable.

1. Humor

Voiceovers don’t have to be dry, meant only to impart or explain – simply, to narrate – but can really dig into the heads of the characters, exposing their fears, prejudices and lies, all for comic or ironic effect. The best example from recent years, that really turned what might have been a rote teen-comedy into something wicked, was Election, which had not one voiceover, but four.

For those who haven’t seen it, Election is sort of like what would happen if Ferris Bueller grew up to hate himself, and it centers around a respected teacher who goes a little nuts one day; the demanding, pushy go-getter student who both repels and attracts him; the dopey, popular athlete along for the ride; and the dopey athlete’s savvier, wilier, adopted sister. In a typical voiceover the quarter might merely explain the action from on high and been rather boring. In Election, though, the characters use their voiceovers as their own personal ‘spin zone,’ where they try to explain themselves, minimize their misdeeds, and court our sympathies, much as Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

2. Illuminates

This may seem obvious, that a good voiceover illuminates the story, but the key is to understand where the fine line is between mere illumination and blinding-brightness, much as there is a line between a helpful mother-in-law and an overbearing wretch.

Given in a traditional manner, the voiceover narration in Barry Lyndon is a magnificent example of how to illuminate. Unlike other narrators, operating as a play-by-play man, he lets the story unfold as it will and adds color, calls Barry to task, and even allows us to have a good chuckle now and again. The opening scene of the film perfectly illustrates the point:

Going against the grain, and falling into many of the traps of what would otherwise be a bad voiceover – mostly by telling too much – the voiceover of Apocalypse Now is an against-the-grain example of how you can do everything wrong and still come up with something so right. As Willard travels upriver to eliminate Kurtz he spends his time lazing on the boat reading a file about Kurtz. Through it all he reads to us, sketching in Kurtz’s history, as well as his own, and though it sometimes can’t get out of its own way, in a movie that sometimes goes deliriously off the rails, it is pitch-perfect. After all, showing, rather than telling about Kurtz would somehow diminish the power of seeing him the first time in the jungle. The audience needs to have him built up so that when he finally slinks out of the shadows, with his bald head and enormous frame, we understand just how fully off the reservation he is.

Think of it this way: if instead of telling us about Kurtz and saving his appearance for the third act they cut to him every time he was mentioned, would the movie have that same feeling of anticipation, or unrelenting dread? No, we need the seemingly bad narration in order to really understand what the movie is all about.

3. Transcends/Transforms the Medium

Whether it is for humor or illumination, the one thing that all the best voiceovers have in common is their desire to transcend or transform the medium, but rising above the medium itself is a tricky thing to do. Done wrong the movie can be weighed down by some pretentious or second-rate nonsense and can be deadly dull. Done wrong, it can make the movie sing.

Consider Stranger Than Fiction. What starts as a fairly straightforward comedy about an IRS agent – the man-with-no-name transported from the old west to a completely tedious job – complete with the over-intrusive narration, quickly turns into something quite different when the main character, Harold Crick, begins to hear the narration. At first he seems to believe he’s going crazy, like this is all just a voice in his head, but when the narrator dictates that a certain turn of events will soon result in his death, he realizes that action must be taken. As the narrator pushes him closer and closer to his demise he begins to search for the unseen narrator – convinced that the voice actually exists beyond the confines of his own head – hoping to head her off at the pass.

Though the narration starts off conventionally it goes one step deeper, using our expectations about voiceovers and narrators to subvert the process. By telling us too much and saying rather than showing not only does it parody traditional narration, it also drives the main character to inactivity, lest he invite it to continue, and finally to an active life. Quite simply, Stranger Than Fiction is a magnificent example of how to expand the horizons of film and even if the ending of the film isn’t particularly moving – the writer within the film doesn’t love the ending, so why should I – it’s a fine example of how you have can take something old and make it new again.


There truly is a fine line between what is a good voiceover and what is bad from one moment to another, and even in different contexts. If you have some you particularly like, let me know.

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