Is it Time to Kill Voiceover Narration in Movies?
Jan 7, 2023
An argument could be made that using voiceover narration in movies is poor filmmaking, a compromise made by studios or directors that shows little regard for both audiences and fine art. After all, the power of film and television is a visual one — the screen can and should tell stories in a way that radio or literature cannot. The old adage for cinema has always been, “Show, don’t tell.”
Just think of the greatest scenes from the history of cinema: the shower scene from Psycho; the chariot race from Ben Hur; chopping through a door in The Shining; dancing through a downpour in Singing in the Rain; or any of a hundred others. These moments display the visual impact movies make, and none of these great scenes needed a narration to explain what characters were thinking, what was happening, or what it meant.
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Movies That Were Better Without Voiceover Narration
20th Century Fox
Countless films, especially in the young adult genre, have been using voiceover narration to death. Fortunately, not all directors think they need a voiceover to complement their characters. There are examples of films in which the use of a voiceover narration would have made sense, but it wasn’t used, and they were still excellent movies.
One such film is Cast Away, in which a good two-thirds of the film is spent focused on a completely isolated Tom Hanks. With scene after scene of Hanks silently walking along beaches or gazing at the horizon, it must have been tempting to share the character’s inner thoughts with a voiceover, but director Robert Zemeckis chose not to, instead creatively using dialog with the imaginary character Wilson to explain things without resorting to voiceover narration. Similar survival films, such as All Is Lost or The Revenant, feature lengthy periods without dialogue, but the lack of voiceover narration actually makes the films better.
Another movie that successfully resisted the temptation to use voiceover narration was Dune: Part 1, directed by Denis Villeneuve. This film offers a great contrast to the 1984 version of Dune, directed by David Lynch. The original novel by Frank Herbert extensively used italic text as a literary form of narration to represent a character’s inner monologue. So much of the book relied on this, it is no wonder that Lynch chose to also heavily rely on voiceover narration. Villeneuve’s Dune: Part 1, however, showed how it was possible to tell the same story without voiceover narration, and tell it better.
Blade Runner: A Case Study in Voiceover
A similar contrast can be seen in the science fiction classic, Blade Runner. The original theatrical cut in 1982 included a voiceover narration from the detective played by Harrison Ford that floated over the transitional moments of the entire film. But in 1992, director Ridley Scott re-edited the film without its voiceover narration to make the film’s Director’s Cut, a version he wished he had had the time and budget to make back in 1982, and most Blade Runner fans agree with the director, that the version without the voiceover narration is far better.
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But even in light of the movies that seemed to benefit from a lack of voiceover narration, does it then follow that voiceover narration is always a compromise, a crutch, a disappointing shortcut, or a poor style choice? Not necessarily. A look at outstanding films that use voiceover narration might reveal that the technique is not only permissible when needed, but can make a film better for its use.
A Film Franchise Where Voiceover Narration Didn’t Detract
New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings trilogy from Peter Jackson used a number of strategic moments for voiceover narration. The first instance comes in the very first moments of the first film. Cate Blanchett’s expositional voiceover as Elf-queen Galadriel sets the stage for all the movies that followed, as did Ian Holm’s important description of Hobbits. In the middle of the second film, a poetic voiceover by King Theoden reflects the grim battle about to begin. And at the end of the final film, Frodo’s voiceover explains the personal cost of victory.
Could these moments of voiceover narration been avoided? It’s hard to see how. It would probably have taken another entire film to do what the beginning expositional voiceovers did, and Frodo’s final voiceover communicated much more than his pale complexion and pained looks ever could have. And the poetic inner monologue of King Theoden added depth to his character, and appropriately established the grim atmosphere of an unfolding Shakespearean tragedy. In each case, the voiceover narration served the film rather than distracting or detracting from it.
Choices of Style in Filmmaking
Choices of style are what add up to the art of a movie, and it should never be forgotten that films are the art of storytelling, regardless of the fact or fiction of the content. The team of artists — and primarily, the director — are who get to decide what style of art to create. An audience may not understand or appreciate a particular style choice in a movie, but that doesn’t mean it was a wrong choice, if it’s what the director and the art team wanted. It’s their art, regardless of the audience’s right to critique their work.
Related: The Best Movies to Master Voiceover Narrations, Ranked
Another element of style can be used as an example to illustrate unorthodox style choices. The earliest decades of cinema were dominated by black-and-white films, and cinematographers got very good at the use of light and shadow. But as color film quality improved and became less expensive through the decades, color film became the predominant choice. In the digital age of today, color is no more of an expense or technical challenge than black-and-white, which raises the question: Why would any filmmaker ever choose to make a black-and-white film ever again?
And yet, black-and-white films are still produced by the studios and directors of today. The latest feature film to make this choice was Emancipation, a Civil War-era story of an escaping slave starring Will Smith, which came out in December 2022 and used color correction in fascinating ways. The Lighthouse, a 2019 film which starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, not only chose to go with black-and-white, but also chose a startling non-wide aspect ratio. Highly acclaimed black-and-white films of recent decades include Woody Allen’s Manhattan from the 1970s, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull from the 1980s, and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List from the 1990s.
The lesson from franchises like The Lord of the Rings is that voiceover narration is simply another element of style in a filmmaker’s tool box, just as black-and-white, or aspect ratios, or text overlays, or green screens are. It’s not an inherently bad filmmaking choice that needs to die; it just needs, like any element, to be used well. Some filmmakers have mastered it (think of the expert use of voiceover in Martin Scorsese’s films Taxi Driver and Goodfellas), while others still have a long way to go.
The lesson from Blade Runner might be that poorly executed or inappropriate voiceover narration does need to die, as would any artistic compromise or stylistic shortcut that makes a film worse instead of better. The bottom line is that audiences don’t want to put stylistic handcuffs on directors — they simply want to see excellence in the art of filmmaking.
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