Voice-over narration in movies.

Observe the following chatlog:
[03:30] hobblin> ya idk blade runner just didnt deliver to me
[03:30] hobblin> maybe i had too high expectations
[03:30] hobblin> oh and dear god the voice overs by harrison ford
[03:30] hobblin> they were just awful
[03:30] hobblin> it was like B movie quality
[05:51] Archfriend> hobblin
[05:51] Archfriend> you watched the Theatrical cut?!?!!
[05:51] Archfriend> no wonder why you thought it sucked

This gets me thinking how there are some movies that get a "Director's Cut" and the first thing they do is eliminate the voice-over narration that featured prominently in the theatrical release. Bladerunner is an example, another I can think of is The Dark City. In both cases, the directors (Ridley Scott and Alex Proyas, respectively) decided the voice-over was disengaging for the audience. A deconstructionist like myself may lead to the conclusion that it was an executive decision, seeing as these were both big studio films. This is where we come to an audience-divide, where the executives are both right and wrong.

The main clash between the executives and the directors comes down to whether profit should get in the way of good film-making. An executive believes the largest portion of consumer-market are morons, it is these people who they are aiming to extract all the money from. So what satisfies the moron? How do we appeal to them?

What morons want, no, what they need is security. They need nurturing; everything must be spelled out clearly. Subtlety does not work, it has to be over-the-top for the moron to even register the moment. They have to have their hands held like little babies, then have a road-map spread out in front of them with a red mark circling the destination point and a dotted line indicating the journey. Then the journey must be safely completed in a three-act structure.

A (good) director, on the other hand, assumes the general audience is intelligent enough to know their algebra and they don't always need their variables to be constants. They can put the pieces together - and enjoy doing it! Perhaps the theory might be uncertainty generates excitement and excitement generates profit.

So who's right?

Just kidding, that was a trick question. Right and wrong doesn't even apply to this argument. Both types of movies have made lots of money and both types of movies have also flopped.

Bladerunner and The Dark City could both fall under the science-fiction-slash-noir category, however Bladerunner was more successful due to its grandiose visuals being so new at the time and The Dark City flopped due to its grandiose visuals not being such an appreciated spectacle as other films of its time plus the story failed to be engaging (most likely due to the voice-over giving away the big twist at the beginning of the film, effectively amputating its own legs it was to stand on).

Perhaps there are many films that could do with a make-over and dropping its voice-over all together. For example, I perceive How To Train Your Dragon would be ten times better without it. Another example is Kick-Ass.
((try to think of more examples later))

But when does voice-over actually enhance a story? I may be exploring the executive's nightmare-realm here, but I can think of two examples based on movies I've enjoyed:

This is when the narrator can speak only from their own perspective and they may or may not be wrong. This unreliability becomes a type of brain-food for the audience as we now have to sift through the given information and sort out for ourselves what could be fact or fiction, and how it is necessary to understand the story.

When a narrator is speaking from the future, most likely in a period piece, the film can give the sense of being very novel-like, whether being adapted from a novel or not. The enjoyment comes from the narrator revealing the story as it's happening, or perhaps sharing information that can not be shown. Sometimes the narrator might not be talking about the story at all, just rambling on some obscure philosophy about something.

It is also entirely possible to have a combination of the two, like in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.

To be honest, there should be more to this blog post, but this is as far as I got in my draft. I could be exploring and deconstructing some examples of good voice-over (and maybe some bad ones), but the effort to slug through all that is more than I could ever muster. I can not even bring myself to give empty promises on future blog posts about the subject. If the discussion should go any further, I suppose that can be done in the comments.


  1. I love the Morgan Freeman voiceover in The Shawshank Redemption.

    And of course, very long intro captions 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away etc' can give an audience a valuable running start into a movie.

    1. My problem with opening captions, particularly the Star Wars ones, is that they betray the golden rule of show-don't-tell. This is a practical issue: if your story relies too heavily on exposition relayed through dialogue or scrolling text, there is a large chance an audience might not be listening close enough, or paying attention at all. Even a bookworm like me will often regress over an entire paragraph because my mind trailed off thinking about something else.

      Dialogue and text alone are simply not gripping. I remember something Iranian film director Asghar Ferhadi once said to his actors: "the camera sees everything, even the thoughts inside your head". What this means is that film should impact its viewers so strongly they don't even have to pay attention to dialogue to know what's happening.

      Admittedly, the original Star Wars films were great without needing the opening crawl, but the text--and most importantly the music--add to the stylization and immersion of a fantasy epic. Up until it became a staple, that is, and by the prequel trilogy they were so loaded with political terminology I eventually stopped reading them altogether.