The Art of Contemplation: The Best of Voice-over in Film

Robert McKee in Adaptation (incidentally a film on this list) may have said, “And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing,” but the following movies prove that voice-over not only enhances a screenplay, it also makes it more literary and resonant.

Robert McKee cautions against voice-over in the voice-over heavy Adaptation
Robert McKee cautions against voice-over in the voice-over heavy Adaptation
Badlands (1973), directed by Terrence Malick: Holly Sargis‘ (Sissy Spacek) naïve re-telling of how she came to fall in love (though it wasn’t really love, just infatuation and a quest for affection and attention) with a murderous older man named Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is integral to getting into the mindset of someone so self-involved and utterly lost in life. It almost makes her logic in following a mad man seem somewhat normal.
All kinds of things going on inside that little head of hers
All kinds of things going on inside that little head of hers
Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder: No one could ever elucidate the plight of the screenwriter quite like Joe Gillis (William Holden)–and he wouldn’t have been able to do it so well without his constant narration.
Typing away to no avail in Sunset Boulevard
Typing away to no avail in Sunset Boulevard
The Good Girl (2002), directed by Miguel Arteta: Jennifer Aniston rarely veers toward the dark side, but as Justine Last (a fitting surname considering her station in life), she has never been more beautifully bitter or more magnificently miserable. Her more cherry voice-over lines include, “As a girl you see the world as a giant candy store filled with sweet candy and such. But one day you look around and you see a prison and you’re on death row. You wanna run or scream or cry but something’s locking you up. Are the other folks cows chewing cud until the hour comes when their heads roll? Or are they just keeping quiet like you, planning their escape.”
Feeling ennui as the good girl
Feeling ennui as the good girl
Fight Club (1999), directed by David Fincher: In the role of The Narrator, Edward Norton’s voice-over is key in order to dupe us into thinking 1) Tyler Durden is real and 2) he’s a credible narrator. Plus, we get profundities like “And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom” thrown in for good measure.
Admiring an illusion
Admiring an illusion
Dirty Dancing (1987), directed by Emile Ardolino: The voice-over in this 80s classic may be more minimal than the rest of the titles on this list, but when Francis “Baby” Houseman does say something contemplatively, you’re all too riveted by it. She lays it all out so clearly for us when she says, “That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me ‘Baby,’ and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad.”
Soaring like it ain't no thing
Soaring like it ain’t no thing
Mermaids (1990), directed by Richard Benjamin: The mellifluous voice of Winona Ryder helps move the emotional, yet comical coming of age story that is Mermaids along quite nicely. As Charlotte Flax, an over thinking teen growing up in the early 60s, Ryder’s narration lends the character a fresh innocence and relatability in sharp contrast to her free-spirited (which means kind of slutty) mother, Rachel (Cher).
Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax, a teen who has taken a shine to Catholicism
Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax, a teen who has taken a shine to Catholicism
Heathers (1988), directed by Michael Lehmann: Although Heathers came out before Mermaids, one would think Winona Ryder had been taking voice-over lessons her whole life as she tells the tale of being trapped in a tormenting clique filled with nothing but Heathers (she’s the only sore thumb with the name Veronica). Every line delivered from the contents of her head is solid gold, among the best being: “Dear Diary, my teen angst bull shit now has a body count.”
Rocking the monocle in Heathers
Rocking the monocle in Heathers
Girl, Interrupted (1999), directed by James Mangold: Yes, apparently Ryder will only act in films where she has voice-over, but why stray away from what works for her? With Girl, Interrupted, adapted from Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, Ryder uses her depressive, “borderline” nature to her writing advantage. With characters like Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie) and Daisy Randone (Brittany Murphy) to describe, voice-over is an essential throughout the film.
One of many great quotes from the film
One of many great quotes from the film
Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze: As one of the most wonderfully weird movies thus far created in the twenty-first century, Adaptation follows the meta existence of Charlie Kaufman (portrayed by Nicolas Cage) in his struggle to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Voice-over, condemned by Robert McKee, proves one of the few ways Kaufman can cope with his writer’s block.
Struggling to write
Struggling to write
The Lost Weekend (1945), directed by Billy Wilder: As the master of wielding voice-over to his character’s advantage, Wilder gives us Don Birnam (Ray Milland), an alcoholic grappling with the concept of recovery. After claiming to be clean and sober to his brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), they’re supposed to go on a “relaxing” long weekend so that Don can write and keep a clear head. His girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), continues to show signs of mistrust about his health, which is part of what leads him to go on a weekend long bender, rehashing how he came to be such a failure through voice-over.
Stewing in self-pity
Stewing in self-pity
And so, while voice-over may be deemed “lazy storytelling” by some, it is often times one of the best ways to get an audience to relate to a character.