Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Great Voice Over Debate

Yes, Robert McKee is a god. His work is full of power and majesty and inspiration. I love him for his contribution to the great discussion on the craft of storytelling.

However, McKee is a flawed greek god who has his problems. He was
wrong about Characters Arcs. Plus, he made all the newbie screenwriters hysterical about voice overs. What was it McKee said in Adaptation? “…and GOD HELP YOU if you use voice over in your work!” Of course, the brilliance of that moment is that McKee says those words right after we hear Kaufman say to us (in a voice over), “It is my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here. Easy answers. Rules to short-cut yourself to success...”

Hehehe… I love that scene.

In his book, Story, McKee went so far as to say, “the trend toward using this telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art. More and more films by some of the finest directors from Hollywood and Europe indulge in this indolent practice.”

Let it also be said that McKee’s all-time favorite movie,
Casablanca, his great exemplar for screenplays, opens with a voice over that was, let’s face it, completely unnecessary. Everything the narrator tells us about all the people waiting and waiting in Casablanca for exit visas to America can be easily discerned through the STORY.

Generally speaking, I am opposed to voice overs. They should be avoided if possible. You gotta show, don’t tell. I am ALL for that. Pass the clipboard and sign me up. Yet, there are still plenty of great films out there in which voice overs were used quite masterfully. Can you name a movie in which there was an effective use of voice overs?

I offer you six:

  • A Christmas Story
  • Adaptation
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Goodfellas
  • Fight Club
  • Thank You For Smoking


Mim said...

"The Opposite of Sex." On the commentary track, Don Roos says he wanted to write a screenplay that broke rules. So he wrote one with an unsympathetic protag, lots of voice over, and something else I can't remember right now.

I love the long voice monologue that opens that movie.

Does the narration in "Princess Bride" count as voice over?

Anonymous said...

I notice Voice Over is common in works that are adapted from novels to the big screen. Novels are so internalized, sometimes it just makes it easier for the screenwriter to capture the inner thoughts of the protag through VO.

Either that, or it's a big cheat. Take your pick

Christina said...

I loved The Opposite of Sex. I forgot about the voice over in it until now.

Here's one out of left-field. Spanglish uses it at the beginning and the end, and it works well. Spanglish is one of those movies panned by critics and film people, but loved by the masses, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I've watched it a few times and have come to appreciate it.

Lianne said...

I love the voiceover in Badlands. It's often used to ironic effect and very stark and deadpan. I've always particularly liked this bit: "Then, sure enough, Dad found out I'd been running around behind his back. He was madder than I'd ever seen him. As punishment for
deceiving him, he went and shot my dog". It's the one line I always remember from that film.

Tim Clague said...

The start of Amercian Beauty. Every day is the first day of the rest of your life. Except the day you die.

Carl S said...

"Stand By Me" had a ton of voice over narration. I love that movie.

GimmeABreak said...

Shawshank Redemption. Great VO narration by Red.

LoveStrong said...

I loved the narration in "Amelie" as it combined with the visual to describe the quirkiness of all the characters (does that count, as it was purely a narrator and not a character in the film?).

And mim, I always think "The Princess Bride" is the right answer, so it gets my vote!

Anonymous said...

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

I think if you've got a single lead character, and his thoughts are as entertaining as his actions, then it works.

The problem is that voice-overs are just plain fun to write; I'd write a voice over on everything I do if I could get away with it. I have to really hold myself back.

Mystery Man said...

There aren't any choices here that I would disagree with.

And I think it's okay so long as you're getting something witty and/or insightful that you can't get IN THE STORY.

Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...


ShadowWeaver said...

Shawshank Redemption
Stand by Me
About Schmidt
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I liked the way they used VO in LA Confidential. The Voice Over was incorporated as Danny Devito's dialogue as he typed the stories for his tabloid.

Carl S said...

"Ferris Beuller's Day Off" had a great combination of voice-over narration and third-person narration when Matthew Brodderick would talk to the audience.

Great, funny movie.

Anonymous said...

I really love voice overs. Of course that doesn't mean they can be used in any way, only if it's suitable to the context and style of the script. I rarely use them, although I think I will soon. I think Big Fish used them good. And Stand by Me and a bunch I can't think of.

Joshua James said...

Forrest Gump?

It might not be a great film, but it didn make a boatload of money, win a ton of Oscars (including script) and used narration very well, almost as a counterpoint to what was going on . . .

Christian H. said...

Perhaps my favorite movies ever:

The Shawshank Redemption


Mystery Man said...

Yeah, man! I love it!

Anonymous said...

Well, don't take his quote out of context. McKee says voice overs are fine if they're used as a counterpoint to the action we see. He uses Woody Allen films as an example of good VOs.

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