The most irritating thing about The Great Gatsby (which I otherwise quite 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.
Film-makers often employ it as an introductory device, the cinematic equivalent of “once upon a time”, like the grandfather reading The Princess Bride to his grandson, whose resistance to the idea of a “a kissing book” leads to irruptions of voice-over into the story – “Hold it. What is this? Are you trying to trick me? ” But, crucially, not too many irruptions, which might become tiresome and prevent the audience from getting swept up in the story of Wesley and Buttercup.
Scene-Setting Narrators can add cosmic dimension, as in A Matter of Life and Death‘s “This is the Universe. Big, isn’t it.” Or documentary-style authenticity, as with The Naked City‘s “It’s one o’clock in the morning, on a hot summer night. And this is the face of New York when it’s asleep…” Or it can provide the starting point for a shaggy-dog story: “Way out west there was this fella I wanna tell you about,” says the folksy-sounding Cowboy, “Fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski…”
Voice-over is a familiar component of film noir, often constructed around flashbacks in which a narrator explains why he’s being roughed up or, in the case of D.O.A., dying. But it can also preserve the droll authorial voice of, say, Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (adapted from Farewell My Lovely) is a fund of cracking one-liners; “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” You can’t show that on screen, or at least you couldn’t back in 1944, when the film was made. But it puts us in Marlowe’s head, which is a fun place to be since, unlike most of the people he encounters, he’s smart, witty and principled.
Not all narrators are as honourable. “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” begins Waldo Lydecker in Laura, leading us up the garden path in more ways than one. “I hated her so I couldn’t get her out of my mind for a minute,” says Johnny Farrell, drawing us into his twisted misogynous view of Gilda, not to mention that hanky-panky with her husband and his “swordstick”. Voice-overs allow us to peek into the sick minds of Psycho‘s Norman Bates (“Let them see what kind of person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly…”), or Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle (“Some day a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets”) or Fight Club‘s nameless narrator (“People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden”).
Such Unreliable Narrators are obviously not to be trusted, but then neither is Henry Hill, whose evocation of glorious gangsterhood in Goodfellas (“To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States”) is constantly being undercut by images of paunchy, self-serving, back-stabbing thugs whose idea of witty repartee, a long way from Philip Marlowe, is “Go fuck your mother”.
Like Willard in Apocalypse Now, narrators can provide the audience with a relatively sane viewpoint (“I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet”) in a scenario that becomes increasingly deranged. And being ostensibly hors de combat doesn’t stop them from being omniscient, like dead Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (“The poor sap – he always wanted a pool”) or comatose Sunny von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (“According to medical experts, I could stay like this for a very long time – brain dead, body better than ever.”)
Narration is often used just to top and tail a film, but one of its most sustained uses is in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. As Sarah Kozloff points out in Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film, Michael Hordern’s omniscient, prescient and ironical voice-over is not used here to “recreate the narrative structure of the novel” but to debunk what we’re seeing with an “ironic commentary upon the hero and eighteenth-century aristocratic society.”
Ridley Scott’s modern classic Blade Runner comes in two versions – with and without voice-over. Prior to the film’s original 1982 release, test audiences expressed bafflement, so producers tacked on a naff film noir-style voice-over by Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, adding reams of exposition to what mostly seemed self-evident to anyone even remotely familiar with the work of Philip K. Dick, on whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it had been based.
It was long rumoured that Ford’s flat delivery was a deliberate ploy to prevent the voice-over being used, but the actor told Playboy magazine, “I didn’t try and sandbag it. It was simply bad narration.” And fruitless, since back in 1982, and even with Ford’s added droning, few critics took science fiction seriously or grasped what the film was about anyway. Subsequent Director’s Cuts have removed it, but since Blade Runner must now be one of the most over-analysed films of all time, there’s nowadays little danger of anyone failing to understand what’s going on.
As for Nick Carraway, his narrator’s viewpoint is an essential component of The Great Gatsby – the novel – and adds immeasurably to its effect. The story is the classic instance of a main character seen through the eyes of a secondary one, whose discoveries about the man mirror our own, and who has to piece together what he doesn’t already know from rumours, gossip, and what other, possibly unreliable, parties tell him, all contributing to a sense of a legend who remains just as mysterious at the end as he was at the beginning.
However, none of this works in Luhrmann’s movie, not least because Maguire’s whiney voice gets on the viewer’s nerves, but also because the adaptation fails to find a cinematic analogue to Carraway’s voice; his narration is imported wholesale, in dirty great chunks that bob around upon the surface of the film, like bits of scum, instead of being absorbed into the body of it. It would still have been possible to relate the story from Carraway’s point of view, and maybe even a bit of voice-over would have worked, even been desirable, as a scene-setting device – but his viewpoint needed primarily to be expressed by cinematic and not by literary means.
(And if you need to know more precisely what I mean by that, just watch Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown or Frantic or The Ghost again, and take note of the way Roman Polanski enables you to climb right inside his protagonist’s heads, without his ever having to resort to voice-over.)
Who knows, perhaps Baz Luhrmann has a narration-free cut of The Great Gatsby tucked away somewhere. We can only hope.
Voice-over narration – six of the best:
The dead man’s introduction to Sunset Boulevard:
Jean-Luc Godard’s voice-over during the Madison dance sequence in Bande à parte:
Michael Hordern provides us with historical and military context in Barry Lyndon:
Mother’s voice-over in Psycho:
“A black pool opened up at my feet…” Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely akd Murder My Sweet.
Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in Laura:
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in May 2013. This is a lightly edited version, with a couple of extra paragraphs tacked on.