This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends! God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can use narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”
So says screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film, Adaptation. Well, not the real screenwriting coach Robert McKee, but the one played in superbly aggressive style by actor Brian Cox, who stomps about on stage at a writing seminar like an angry bull. Brilliantly, McKee’s condemnation of voice-overs interrupts the interior thoughts, as narrated by Nicolas Cage’s fictionalized version of Charlie Kaufman – a terminally anxious screenwriter with an Everest-sized case of writer’s block.
It’s an example of the quirky, hall-of-mirrors kind of humour that courses through Adaptation, which is – here comes that word again – a fictionalized account of Kaufman’s thwarted attempt to adapt a best-selling novel into a screenplay. The scene’s also an illustration of the uneasy relationship the screenwriter can have with narration: used well, it can provide movie moments that are insightful, poetic and profoundly moving. Used poorly, a voice-over becomes a crutch.
We’ve all seen at least one movie where narration is simply a means to an end: a way of getting across a huge slab of story in a few lines of dialogue. In the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, for instance, Tom Cruise winds up providing us with a lengthy exposition dump to explain where the film’s set, why the Earth’s a mess and what those strange pyramid-shaped objects are floating in the sky. In an otherwise striking film with plenty to appreciate about it, Oblivion’s opening monologue sticks out like one of those floating pyramids; in terms of setting a scene in a hurry, it gets the job done, but it’s a far less elegant solution than using visuals or action to get audiences up to speed.
The best voice-overs, on the other hand, flow beautifully into the fabric of the story. If they draw attention to themselves at all, it’s because their writing sings in our heads for days after the movie’s finished. Here’s a highly personal – and by no means definitive – list of effective, powerful or poignant voice-over moments in recent movies. Some are long, straddling the narrative almost from beginning to end; others consist of only a handful of lines. All of them are examples of a screenwriting device used beautifully.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
“Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground… I can sense, but I can’t see. I ain’t panicked. I’ve been here before. Same as I got popped on 104th street. Don’t take me to no hospital, please…”
An example of how beautiful narration can be when coupled with a lush score. Al Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, an ex-con determined to go straight – but his old life as a gangster has an irresistible gravitational pull. The opening voice over gives us a hint of the intelligence and humanity behind Carlito’s outward swagger and machismo; as a result, we empathise with him before the story’s even begun.
Director Brian De Palma keeps his drama-thriller moving at such an irresistible pace that we almost forget that the whole thing’s told in flashback; when we move back to the beginning for a closing narration, the result is truly heart-wrenching.
“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television…”
Trainspotting was just about inescapable in the late ’90s, and this storming open is one of the reasons why. Taken almost word-for-word from Irvin Welsh’s novel, it’s given profound urgency by Danny Boyle’s direction and the use of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” on the soundtrack. The ironic use of that song fits perfectly with the theme of this opening voice-over, delivered by a young Ewan McGregor: Trainspotting is about a generation of young men and women who, rightly or wrongly, reject the pre-packaged version of life offered to them by mainstream society and media. The office job, the white goods, the bouts of DIY at the weekend.
Instead, they’ve embraced a drug culture and everything that goes with it; Boyle presents that culture in all its exhilaration and horror. Because if there were no upsides to taking heroin, why would anyone bother? With the highs, of course, come the crushing, degrading lows. Appropriately, Boyle starts Trainspotting with that initial headrush – the film starting on an audience-pleasing sprint before gradually peeling back the layers of a young man’s addiction, McGregor’s narration leading us by the hand every step of the way.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
“Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there’s a man, sometimes, there’s a man. Agh – I lost my train of thought here…”
The Coen Brothers’ endlessly quotable comedy drama is topped and tailed by a pair of monologues from Sam Elliott as The Stranger. Like Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (see later), The Big Lebowski is a unique riff on pulp detective thrillers.
In this instance, it’s the shambolic, weed-smoking bowling enthusiast Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) who’s stumbling through a world of porn, kidnappings and ransom money instead of a hard-drinking private eye like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. And, just to ring the changes, the narration isn’t delivered by the protagonist himself, but someone who has no obvious connection to the story at all. But like the rug in The Dude’s hellhole of a flat, the narration really ties the story together. My pet theory? He’s the Little Lebowski’s guardian angel – which explains why, despite all the nihilists, varmint attacks and minor car accidents, the Dude always abides.
Fight Club (1999)
“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”
Like Trainspotting, Fight Club captured the late-90s zeitgeist of hollowness and dislocation. The narrator in Fight Club (that’s Edward Norton) may not be a heroin addict, but he winds up rejecting society even more violently than Trainspotting’s Renton. Abandoning his lucrative corporate job and worldly professions, he winds up in thrall to Tyler Durden, an enigmatic outsider who has the idea of setting up a bare-knuckle boxing club for disaffected young men. What begins as a decidedly hands-on self-help group gradually morphs into a cult and then into a full-blown terrorist organization.
All the while, Norton’s narrator observes at first with cool admiration, then with bewilderment, and finally with outright fear. Like a beat poem, the narrator’s terse, sarcastic voice-over moves to the rhythm of David Fincher’s fevered shooting and editing. It’s the perfect fit for a story told entirely from the perspective of the central character’s subjective reality. And as we later learn, Norton’s protagonist is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators.“Where is my mind” indeed.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
“Anyway, by now you may wonder how I wound up here. Or, maybe not. Maybe you wonder how silly putty picks shit up from comic books. The point is, I don’t see another Goddamn narrator, so pipe down.”
Screenwriter Shane Black announced his left-turn into filmmaking with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – an affectionate and encyclopaedic riff on the conventions of the pulp noir thriller. Black himself calls Kiss Kiss “deconstructed noir” – deconstructed to the point where Robert Downey Jr.’s wise-ass protagonist not only knows he’s narrating a movie, but even pauses the action and occasionally rewinds it to pass comment.
Downey Jr.’s ideal for Black’s line in pithy put-downs and rambling asides, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the film that put both actor and filmmaker back on the Hollywood map after years in the doldrums. The pair wound up working together again for Iron Man 3, which again uses a noir-ish voice-over to ironic and amusing effect. “A famous man once said, ‘We create our own demons.’ Who said that? What does that even mean? Doesn’t matter. I said it ’cause he said it.”
(Speaking of Shane Black, do go and see The Nice Guys if you haven’t already.)
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
“Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations and remarkably few words. And his wristwatch said even less.”
A comedy drama in the Charlie Kaufman mode, Stranger Than Fiction plays with the conventions of a common screenwriting device. In short, what would happen if a character in a story could hear the author narrating their life? How would we react if we discovered we were merely a character in a novel or screenplay, subject to the whims of our creator? That’s a crisis the buttoned-up tax auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) has to deal with, as he starts hearing author Emma Thompson’s narration one morning while cleaning his teeth.
Screenwriter Zach Helm’s sweet-natured story manages to explore multiple themes at once. First, the sensation of feeling trapped by our own personalities and hang-ups: it’s safe to say none of us have our lives narrated to us by Emma Thompson, but we’ve all been subjected to that hyper-critical voice that mutters in our heads from time to time. And from a writer’s perspective, Stranger Than Fiction relates just how fully-formed a non-existent character can emerge in an author’s mind. “Kill your darlings” may be a famous aphorism, but as Thompson’s novelist finds out, deciding the fate of a character who seems so alive on the page can be an agonising sensation.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again.”
Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel makes sparing use of narration, but it’s sublimely effective when it does. In one instance, it’s used for blackly comic effect. In two other scenes, we listen to the private thoughts of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop in thrall to an addictive drug called Substance D. Taken almost verbatim from Dick’s novel, based on his own experiences in the 1970s, it’s pregnant with introspection, sadness, and regret.
Reeves isn’t necessarily known for the power and range of his acting, but his voice-over work is outstanding in A Scanner Darkly. The story is about a character spying on himself and failing to recognise what he sees. The narration gives this blackly comic sci-fi drama an almost painfully raw, tragic edge.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
“Mr. Zero Moustafa was, at one time, the richest man in Zubrowka, and was still, indeed, the owner of The Grand Budapest…”
Wes Anderson made copious use of narration in his earlier films, not least The Royal Tenenbaums, but rarely so effectively as in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
At first, the voice-over – first delivered by Tom Wilkinson before it’s handed over seamlessly to Jude Law, who plays a younger version of the same character – could be seen as another element of Anderson’s precious, eccentric style. Yet his meandering, often blackly comic drama-comedy soon reveals its true intentions: it’s a story about storytelling, and how our personal histories survive by being told and retold by subsequent generations.
It’s easy to miss on first viewing, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is, like Wuthering Heights, a story within a story within a story. The ageing Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) relates the ups and downs of his life story to Jude Law’s young author, who in turn writes that narrative down in a memoir, which is related to us long after his death as a woman reads the book at the start of the film.
Through telling stories, Anderson seems to say, we can acquire a kind of immortality – or, at least, a longevity that outlasts wars, empires, and seemingly immovable buildings like the Budapest Hotel.