“And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”
- Brian Cox as real guy Robert McKee in Adaptation
McKee’s statement is just as often wrong as it is right, and we aim to document both sides of that coin. Sure, when voice-over is used poorly it becomes a distraction or redundant, but when it’s used well it’s a complete joy, bringing you right inside a movie.
Over the course of this week we’re going to examine five of the best and five of the worst movie voice-overs. There may be a couple of obvious ones that we leave out so we can squeeze in a couple of under-appreciated gems or a few under-hated turds, but for the next five days you’ll be getting a guided tour of the highlights and lowlights of people speaking over the action in a movie.
Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Voice-over type: Omniscient Madsen and Whispery Everybody Else
Picking out the most batshit insane thing in David Lynch’s Dune is a daunting task, but the truly bizarre use of voice-over must be high on anybody’s list. The film begins with a solid three minute voice over by Virginia Madsen, playing Space Princess Irulan, and then, after the titles, there’s about two more minutes of voice-over by a computer. I could synopsize the novel Dune in less time, but you’ll still be mostly in the dark about what the fuck is happening after listening to all this yakking. And the exposition isn’t limited to just the movie – check out the poster to the right for a whole torrent of words.
These opening narrations (and Madsen returns over the course of the film to offer yet more exposition) are just setting the stage for the strangest voice-over conceit in film history:
Everybody has voice-over.
I guess it’s sort of like comic book thought bubbles, but Lynch has almost every single character engage in whispery voice-overs. I kept expecting Duke Leto’s pug to pipe in with his innermost (whispered) thoughts: ‘I want steak!’. What makes these voice-overs so nuts is that many of the characters are voice-overing things we can see with our very eyes. ‘I am picking up a cup,’ somebody might narrate as they picked up a cup. Or a character will look suspiciously askance at another character and whisper in their brain, ‘I don’t trust him.’ It’s a remarkable case of not trusting the basic storytelling on screen.
Voice-over lowlight: ‘Arrakis… Dune… Desert planet.’
A Christmas Story (1983)
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Jean Shepard, Leigh Brown, Bob Clark
Voice-over type: Reminiscing, Non-Grabby Grandpa
There are few films that can weave the narration in with the onscreen action as well as this one does. The effect becomes like sitting on the couch next to your grandfather and listening to him read you a book while you close your eyes and imagine all the characters coming to life. Even 24-hour marathons of this movie on cable can’t break that special spell.
I almost feel bad putting this movie in the first installment of this series – what will live up to the joy of hearing the etiquette of dares explained, or the way Shepard luxuriates in very grown-up words to evoke the momentous feelings and emotions of childhood? How do you top this one?
Voice-over highlight: ‘Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the Queen Mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!’