(SPOILERS: Blade Runner, Goodfellas)
There are those who claim using voice-over in a movie is a weak device (Robert McKee, for example, as famously satirized in Adaptation, screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman). Personally, I disagree. To defend my stance I would simply point to such great movies as Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) and Raising Arizona (written by Ethan & Joel Coen). I cannot imagine how either of them could have been improved by removing the voice-over.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of bad voice-over. The most notorious is probably Blade Runner (screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples). But why did it fail so badly? Blade Runner is a combination of noir and sci-fi, and thus feels like a natural for voice-over, noir movies being particularly known for the device. It seems to me the reason the voice-over doesn’t work is because the content of the voice-over is bad.
Let’s look at a couple examples from the film:
I didn't know whether Leon gave Holden a legit address. But it was the only lead I had, so I checked it out. Whatever was in the bathtub was not human. Replicants don't have scales. And family photos? Replicants didn't have families either.
The report would be routine retirement of a replicant which didn't make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back. There it was again. Feeling, in myself. For her, for Rachael.
Now compare to the first chunk of voice-over in Goodfellas:
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after-school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there I belonged. To me it meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies. They weren't like anyone else. They did whatever they wanted. They'd double-park in front of the hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.
Notice how the Deckard’s voice-over is dry and expository, while Henry’s voice-over crackles with character? Of course, Henry’s is also somewhat expository but we barely notice because it’s revealing his character at the same time.
One of the artistically valid reasons to use voice-over is to tell a story from a particular character’s perspective. To do that the voice-over needs to have a strong sense of the character’s voice. Goodfellas flips between Henry and Karen’s voice-over and each is strong and distinctive.
Voice-over is lazy when it’s used to simply explain things to the audience. Which is how it feels in Blade Runner. Moreover, in Blade Runner it explains things that don’t really need explaining – a fact proved by how effective the movie played in later releases without the voice-over. Cut the voice-over out of Goodfellas and it wouldn’t make any sense at all.
Other movies like Dune (screenplay by David Lynch) or the 1948 Joan of Arc (screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Andrew Solt) have bad voice-over because the movie was cut down for length and the voice-over was added to bridge the gaps. But again, it’s not the technique itself that’s bad; it’s the way it’s used. The real problem was the (alleged) need to hack apart the movie in the first place.
I think the lesson is that voice-over is a good device when it’s an integral part of the style and structure of the movie and a bad device when it’s a crutch to help with exposition or to fix other problems in the film.
There is one place expository voice-over seems to work: at the very beginning of the film to set up the world of the story. This is most common in sci-fi films and historical films. These are often actually just audio versions of title cards like the opening scroll in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). Another variation is a narrated prologue such as that done in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (screenplay by Linda Woolverton) or the first Lord of the Rings movie (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson).
It may in fact be lazy to use these devices to open your movie. But it’s also an effective short cut to tell the audience what they need to know, especially if they’re entering an unfamiliar world. Every once in a while we’re better off taking the lazy short cut than spending a lot of screen time on a more elegant approach. This works best at the beginning of a movie before we’ve settled into the storyline, as long as you keep it brief and punchy (The Lord of the Rings prologue is a little long for my taste). Once the story gets going, constant interruption by an expository narrator is distracting.
So having a strong “voice” in your voice-over is important. Does that mean those movies with an omniscient narrator – one who’s not a character in the movie, like Vicky Christina Barcelona (written by Woody Allen) – have bad voice-over?
Not necessarily, but I do think it’s harder to pull this off. You lose one of the primary reasons for doing voice-over in the first place – to get inside a character’s head. You might be able to give your omniscient narrator some personality, of course, but generally the effect is literary, not filmic. The omniscient narrator most often works when it is used to create a kind of “fairy tale” feeling that fits the tone of the film.
I’m going to continue to look at using voice over effectively in upcoming posts, along with some other narrative devices like flashback and framing stories.