Voice-over narration is a technique commonly used in film, theatre or television productions in which a voice, that is generally non-diegetic, occurs in the course of a work’s narrative.
Usually uttered by a character from within the work, voice-over typically aims to elucidate a story’s development and mise-en-scène, thus creating elements of structure and continuity. It can be used as a way to recount past events and create an ambience, but is also recurrent in non-fictional films, such as documentaries or televised-news, due to its characteristically informative nature.
However, by reflecting on which motion pictures have employed the most significant uses of voice-over narration, we can discern films that often transcend and defy this method’s conventional expectations.
Though voice-over is a technique that frequently causes debate in the cinematic world due to the claim that a film is inherently narrated – and thus that a supplementary voice would merely interfere in the storyline, it is surely due to the work of some remarkable screenwriters that voice-over has proven its ability of not necessarily intruding, but enhancing the effect of a narrative.
This list is an attempt of categorising the films with the most effective and innovative uses of voice-over narration in a somewhat suitable order, with the effort of avoiding to merely classify them on a best-film basis.
We can find works with varied but distinctively creative ways of employing voice-over, some based off literary works in order to preserve the author’s language, and others with entirely inventive uses – rather justifying why several were either nominated or won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
25. Blast Of Silence
Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence is greatly undervalued in many aspects. Its black-and-white cinematography lends it a realism that marks it as one of the final authentic film noirs; while it’s contemporary jazz score perfectly places it in its beatnik New York setting. However, one of the film’s most distinctive techniques remains its striking and original use of voice-over narration.
Its unique quality comes from the fact it is spoken by narrator Lionel Stander (who was uncredited for being blacklisted according to the period’s McCarthyism) in the second-person, delivering gripping lines such as in the film’s opening: “You were born with hate and anger built in.”
As the plot follows lonesome assassin Frankie Bono (performed by Baron himself) who returns to New York after time away for another killing, the use of voice-over helps heighten the film’s gloomy atmosphere, in harmony with the telling cinematography.
Even though the tone of the second-person omniscience can often make the audience uncomfortable, it is nevertheless used efficiently by Baron to expose the inner feelings of a mostly silent and deranged character, as exemplified with: “You’re alone. But you don’t mind that”.
The technique humanises this largely immoral figure and makes us ambiguously empathise with a killer. If it wasn’t for its use of voice-over, Bono would have been a wholly one-dimensional character, but thanks to it the film becomes a model for character study.
24. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson’s cinematic style is recognisable to anyone familiar with his work: an amusing yet melancholic character-driven storyline, a static camerawork with symmetrical compositions, a pop-rock soundtrack, and, more often than not, voice-over narration. The Royal Tenenbaums is no different in this sense, and is probably the filmmaker’s most notable film to display this technique.
Clearly influenced from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Anderson and Owen Wilson collaboratively wrote the film’s script in a book-like manner, with new scenes opening as different chapters, narrated by the omniscient yet absent Alec Baldwin. His voice-over significantly enriches the film’s narrative, particularly for setting the tone and explaining the situation surrounding the complex family of geniuses that the Tenenbaums are, such as informing the viewer from the start: “he [Royal Tenenbaum] and his wife had three children, and then they separated”.
Unlike many of the narrators we encounter in this list, Alec Baldwin delivers his lines rather objectively, with a composed tone lacking much emotional weight, proving him as a reliable narrator. His voice-over is absolutely crucial to carry the film’s development and sometimes add character insights or mysterious revelations, like suggestively commenting after having said the latter quote that Royal and his wife “were never legally divorced”.
23. Raising Arizona
Raising Arizona’s voiceover is memorable in particular for its typically Coen brother-esque sense of humour. In only their second feature-film, Joel and Ethan Coen comically portrayed the adventures of an irresponsible and inept thief (Nicolas Cage) and a mug-shot-taking policewoman (Holly Hunter) who spontaneously decide to kidnap and raise as their own a quintuplet of a locally famous Arizonian family when they discover their inability to conceive, but encounter all sorts of extraordinary problems to keep the toddler.
Carried by Cage’s redneck accent and dry tonal delivery, which is often also amusingly accompanied by a fast-paced playing banjo, Raising Arizona’s voiceover thrives for conveying the film’s hilarity yet simultaneously immersing the audience in H.I’s (Cage’s character) simple yet genuine thoughts on the absurd situations the protagonists get themselves into.
The Coen Brothers’ idiosyncratic style fill Cage’s narration with outspoken understatements that acquaint the spectator with this peculiar character. For instance, H.I. justifies him and his wife’s decision to kidnap the quintuplet by stating: “We thought it was unfair that some should have so many while others should have so few”. The constantly unassuming quality of H.I’s voice-over, that is inherent to his character, helps enhance each scene and succeeds in underscoring the film’s overall satirical quality.
22. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” Johnny Depp’s opening line in voice-over of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas announces straight on the film’s psychedelic aura and the wild exhilaration of Depp’s character, Raoul Duke, who acts as an alter ego to Hunter S. Thompson, the author of the original book the film is based upon.
Although many initially thought of it as impossible to adapt to film, Monty Python legend and acclaimed director Terry Gilliam accepted the challenge and, thanks to his use of voice-over narration, managed to reflect the book’s underlying substance and criticism of American society, that arguably overshadows the abundant drug-usage.
Indeed, Duke’s voice-over exposes how their surreal experiences in Vegas epitomise the disillusionment felt towards the American Dream at the height of the Vietnam War, when the book was released.
Duke is a journalist sent to cover a motorcycle race in Vegas and – though being entirely intoxicated – possesses an impassive voice-over that helps bring some measure of calm to his unsettled character. Gilliam described voice-over as “essential, because Hunter Thompson’s language is so important”, thus much of the script is taken directly from the book to preserve the author’s unique prose.
If it wasn’t for the narration, it would merely be hallucinogenic images of guys tripping for no real purpose, but that isn’t what Thompson’s book evokes, and – effectively – neither does Gilliam’s film.
Every Christopher Nolan film is always a bit of a puzzle, with recurrent elements building up the plot’s enigmas and clues helping us find the often-fleeting answers.
In Memento, a film that progresses in reverse chronology about an ex-insurance investigator, Leonard (Guy Pearce), who is determined to find the man who murdered and raped his wife but struggles due to his short-term memory caused by a severe head injury, Pearce’s voice-over is the crucial clue to help us both find this killer and understand the narrative’s complexities.
The film raises philosophical questions surrounding memory and self, as the protagonist’s condition makes it impossible to use memory to resolve the mystery, hence he continually asks himself who he is and where he’s going. Due to this, voice-over carries emphatic importance by plunging us into Leonard’s disturbed state. His internal monologue helps the audience empathise with this perplexed figure and find the murderer at the same pace as Leonard, while unravelling the film’s reverse chronology.
On the surface, the protagonist might seem a banal and unnerving detective, but the voice-over exposes his vulnerable and conflicted side, plus frequently adds a comical tone, as he encounters a new figure and thinks “oh I’m chasing this guy” before the man tries to shoot him and Leonard realises “No… he’s chasing me”.
In 1999, shortly after his success with Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, collaborating again with director Spike Jonze, thrust himself onto a new challenging project: adapting Susan Orlean’s best-selling non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief. But Kaufman became doubtful of how to best alter this unconventional storyline into a script, and encountered arduous writer’s block. Nevertheless, he remained determined to address in particular Orlean’s continual theme of passion, declaring: “I had to adapt to being an adaptor.”
Elaborating on this concept, Kaufman created a satire of the process of adaptation, blending influences from his own struggle to create along with elements of Orlean’s book in a very introspective and metafictional type of story. This is echoed in the film’s voice-over as Robert McKee, played by Brian Cox, exclaims to the Charlie Kaufman character: “God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing.”
Still, after the film’s voice-over seemingly fades, Kaufman’s self-confidence as a writer re-emerges; he ignores what others (both McKee and Adaptation’s producers) might expect of his script, stating that voice-over simply “feels right.” Indeed, Kaufman could not have managed to evoke his own personal struggle to adapt had there not been a voice-over to grasp this inner conflict.
19. Apocalypse Now
Much has been disclosed about Apocalypse Now’s gruelling shooting in the Philippines jungle, yet few are aware that most of the film’s voice-overs were added in post-production, were written by war correspondent Michael Herr and voiced by Joe Estevez, who replaced his brother and the film’s protagonist, Martin Sheen, who was busy at the time.
Regardless of these details, it is evident that Coppola realised how necessary voice-over was to bring coherence to the film’s surreal nature and complex narrative, mixing influences of Willard’s (Sheen) spiritual journey from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but set in the brutal Vietnam War context.
Although not sustained throughout the film, voice-over unquestionably enriches the plot’s meaning and Sheen’s character. It is central in several perspectives, but notably for how it offers insight into Willard’s troubled mind-set, thus emphasising the psychological impact of war and how the narrator’s inner reflections convey his mission’s apocalyptic feeling.
With Herr’s own experiences in the Vietnam setting, his powerfully blunt writing brings wit and compassion to a character that would otherwise seem nonsensical. Furthermore, we understand from the beginning why Willard carries the narration: “There was no way to tell his story [Kurtz’s] without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.”
This helps clarify how the story centres on Willard’s development and his experiences that turn him parallel to his target, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), although he contemplates but ultimately diverges from the darkness.
18. A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel was – as expected – a highly controversial and subversive work, especially for the rather turbulent period during its 1971 release – to the point of outraging viewers who called for censorship of its recurrently graphic sexual violence. But what is arguably A Clockwork Orange’s most disconcerting factor is the moral ambiguities it poses, as it provokes questions on our definitions of goodness and freedom in society that might be scarily still relevant today.
One of the biggest moral dilemmas is effectively conveyed by plunging the audience into the mind of the film’s most terrifying character, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), through his use of an unnerving voice-over. This causes a significant predicament as voice-overs given by subjective narrators are usually used to make the spectator empathise with the speaker, but here Kubrick offers a narrator that is a ruthless sociopathic killer and rapist.
The most distressing aspect is that, by the film’s ending, we actually do attain some sympathy for Alex by peering into his inner reflections, especially during the torture reminiscent of Pavlov’s classical conditioning that he is made to endure.
The voice-over is also useful for clarifying the droogs’ use of slang called Nadsat, remaining true to the book’s linguistic experimentations. Still, McDowell’s voice-over is chiefly creditable for how it daringly manages to make us feel compassion for a character that causes most of the film’s atrocities.