Getting Vocal About Voiceovers: The Problem With Movie Narration

the longest week movie narrationWhile watching the abominable, pretentious film The Longest Week (2014) the other night, I became aware of a horrifying trend—a cynical, mean-spirited pattern so insidious that it threatens our own culture and everything we prize surrounding it.

That’s right. I’m talking about unnecessary movie narration … one of the most disturbing problems the world is facing today.

All right, so I’m guilty of hyperbole. Forgive me. I certainly exaggerate, but this is an issue in cinema, and it needs to be addressed—by directors, writers and even producers. Narration, in general, doesn’t add anything to feature-length films and instead often serves as a distraction, lessening the quality of a picture through telling, not showing, and preventing the audience from making its own conclusions.

The Longest Week had this issue and was interminable because of it; the action slowed down to accommodate the voiceover, creating a tedious mess. But this movie is just one example of a cinematic disease that has become pervasive in the industry, a crutch for lazy storytelling and uninspired dialogue. It’s an easy way out, in my opinion. And a poor one as well.

True, there are exceptions, and they often seem to originate from literature, where the narration serves to provide significant background to a tale that otherwise would be too voluminous or complex to adapt concisely. I can think of a couple of pictures where this works: Kwaidan (1964) and The Third Man (1949). In both films, the voiceovers shed light on the action, providing context for the scenes while not detracting from the story. In fact, the narration in these flicks bolsters their quality, involving us in the plot, grabbing us right from the outset.

Why can’t all movies with narration be like these?

OK, granted, The Third Man and Kwaidan are classics, above and beyond most of their contemporaries. And it’s not as if narration is a new thing; it has been a force in film since sound took hold of the celluloid psyche. Yet these days, it feels more prevalent, and its presence seems more pronounced in the movies of today, as if they’ve taken root like weeds, easily spotted in even the largest, most manicured garden.

The Third Man movie narrationI seriously hope this particular weed doesn’t take over. Because if it does, the ability of a moviegoer to make decisions for himself or herself will be compromised.

Narration tells viewers what to think — of characters, of situations. It comments on the action, archly, breaking the wall separating the audience from the art. It can be valuable, but most often, it’s not, and many films don’t need it. They can tell themselves.

I don’t think there will be a world without this tool. It has become too ingrained in our cinematic fabric to be extricated. But I do hope more filmmakers today start to shy away from it. This is a potential irritant. Use requires careful handling. Expert writing. It’s not for beginners. It’s not for everyone.

And if you’re going to apply it to your films, future directors, let it be done judiciously. Not the way it was used in The Longest Week.

That’s a benchmark I hope few films of the future will reach. I’m not sanguine about the prospects of that happening, though. As long as the lure of narration exists, the chance that it will be utilised horribly is a real possibility.

Too bad. In the right hands, it can be a useful technique. In the right hands.

Let’s hope tomorrow’s filmmakers learn from pictures such as Kwaidan and The Third Man, rather than The Longest Week. At this point, that’s all I can aspire to do in that regard.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

11 thoughts on “Getting Vocal About Voiceovers: The Problem With Movie Narration

  1. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, Trainspotting, Sunset Boulevard, countless Noir films… all great films made even better by extensive use of voiceover.

  2. The cardinal rule when teaching beginning screenwriting – directly from Robert McKee – is never use voice-over. But the real rule – which McKee would agree with – is never use voice-over badly. I think it’s like any other device in that regard, but it probably is abused more than any other device (along with non-linear structure). I’d hate to lose Woody Allen’s VO in Annie Hall or Radio Days, or any of the countless fatalistic narrators from so many noirs.

    • Ah, OK, now I see the post! Yes, I think never using a voiceover badly is the best solution. I don’t think as highly of Annie Hall or Radio Days as some, so I probably wouldn’t miss the narration from those films very much, though in Love and Death, Woody Allen’s humorous voiceover works brilliantly, in my opinion. The problem, though, is that the tool is used poorly so often … and doing it well is tough. The classics bearing narration are just that: classic. But the films in which it’s done badly are just horrible.

  3. My general rule of thumb when writing screenplays is: If I can’t get Cecil B DeMille, Orson Welles or Joseph Cotten to read the narrative voiceovers for the film, I don’t write narrative voiceovers. So far, so good. No narrative voiceovers.

    I completely agree with your conjecture that the writer is typically telling the reader/viewer what to think when using this device. It is essentially “I don’t know how to write this part effectively, so let’s just skip over it really quickly and move on the bit that I think is pretty good.”

    Thanks for the post.

    PS I love the fact that the trailer for Longest Week asks the question I had which is how can I care for these characters.

  4. I finally watched “Maleficent” just yesterday. (I know, I’m a year behind.) I thought there were a bunch of things wrong with that movie–like the pacing, its indecisive style, the impossibly twee Aurora–but the thing that really stood out to me as sloppy storytelling were the voiceovers. I thought, can’t you just…make a movie? Do you have to read me a story, too?

    • I completely agree. I’m assuming in Maleficent that they were trying for a fairy tale feel, but it’s the kind of thing that can easily fall flat. Such voiceovers are rarely warranted, and in my opinion, they more often subtract from rather than add to a movie’s quality.

  5. I’m with you on unnecessary narration. Often when I hear it start, I wonder if it is being used to make up for flaws in the film. I’m surprised that you even bothered to watch this pile in the first place. (Unless it was for work )That’s a fair bit of time you will never get back!
    Cheers Simon, best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

    • It’s funny, Pete–even though it was something of a waste of time, I’m glad I saw it, as it made me more aware of this phenomenon … and gave me something extra to whine about! But you’re right: Frequently when narration is used, it seems like filler for cinematic flaws, and that’s just not right. Audiences definitely deserve better.

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