THE ART OF THE VOICE-OVER: ITS PROS AND CONS AS A NARRATIVE DEVICE IN FILMS

gatsbyleo

I wrote about voice-over narrators in films for the Telegraph website. Here’s the beginning of the piece:

The most irritating thing about The Great Gatsby (which I mostly enjoyed) was Tobey Maguire’s voice-over. “He had the kind of smile that seemed to believe you, and understand you as you wanted to be believed and understood,” says Tobey over a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio giving us exactly that kind of smile. And then, later, “Gatsby looked in that moment as if he had killed a man,” Tobey says over an image of DiCaprio looking – yes! – exactly like someone who had killed a man.

As the popular screenwriting slogan has it, “Show – don’t tell.” Just because the story is told from one character’s point of view doesn’t mean you have to hear that character’s voice blathering in your ear all the time – look at Chinatown. Voice-over narration is pointless when it’s adding nothing to what we can already see for ourselves, but it does have its uses.

To read more, please click on the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio above to be transported by the magic of the internet to the Telegraph website.

Or stick around here to watch a couple of clips we couldn’t squeeze into the article.

Here’s Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe explaining everything to the cops in Murder, My Sweet:

 

And Jean-Luc Godard chipping in with what the characters are thinking while they’re dancing the Madison in Bande à part:

 

And Nicolas Cage sitting in at a storytelling seminar in Adaptation (dank je wel Meneer Westhoff):

 

 

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11 thoughts on “THE ART OF THE VOICE-OVER: ITS PROS AND CONS AS A NARRATIVE DEVICE IN FILMS

  1. This is why I adore Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. She employed just enough of the original Eugenides text to suffuse the narrative with wry tragedy, and left the rest to her very capable young cast.

  2. I must be some sort of massive freak (shh! don’t tell anyone), but I quite liked didn’t dislike the VO in Bladerunner.

    Apart from adding to the ‘noir-ish’ feel, there are 3 or 4 places where it covers a narrative gap, (meeting Gaff at the noodle stall is one I can drag up from memory), though some people might find it strange if they were not familiar with the hard-boiled detective genre.

    The tone of voice, appears to be that of a man pressed to a burdensome task he despises, or on reflection hints at Deckard’s true nature.

    A Matter of Life and Death uses it very well, but as it exists in two realms it is a necessary device to ‘crossover’ between worlds.

    On reflection it was quite widely used in the 40s and 50’s. Olivier’s Henry V uses it very pointedly to shift location, and Kind Hearts and Coronets relies on it heavily to deliver a potted introduction of each of the D’Ascoynes.

    • I didn’t dislike the orginal Blade Runner VO THAT much, but frankly I’m not sure what I feel about it now as I’ve seen that film in both versions so many times, I’m not sure I have an opinion any more. But I think it was an interesting example of producers getting cold feet and adding VO when perhaps it wasn’t strictly necessary.

      I don’t think A Matter of Life and Death uses the VO much beyond the introduction does it? Though the Collector DOES break the Fourth Wall when he makes his Technicolor remark.

      Kind Hearts and Coronets is, of course, told via Louis’ memoirs. “My memoirs!” he says at the end, having left them in the prison. “My memoirs…” It was on my shortlist to be included in the piece, as was Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is a great example of VO adding information that places the action in context, and gives it deeper meaning.

  3. Worst ever has to be Dune, no? The novel was so dense it was necessary, but perhaps that indicates that the novel is un-filmable.

  4. My nom for worst ever was in The Assasination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, during which a narrator intones, of Ford, something to the effect of, ‘he sat, flipping cards over one by one” as he sits, yes, flipping cards over one by one.
    Best was a very short out-of-nowhere VO in the Royal Tennenbaums which proclaims something like ‘and as soon as he said it, he knew it was true’. It was a huge story point, totally impossible to convey otherwise.

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