I wrote this essay for a film theory course I took from Brian Henderson back in 2004 when I was a grad student at University of Buffalo. Ironically, when I was researching the topic I found that Brian Henderson, my prof, had written one of the most important essays on voice over narration. I guess he liked my take on it, because he gave me an A. I was intrested in termonolgies and structures; but I was mostly intregued by where these structures break down. So, I’m offering it up here on my site publicly for the first time.
Narratives that transcend simple labels are often the most innovative and groundbreaking; these hybrid narratives can also lead to greater understanding of the forms, systems, and terms themselves. Not all voice-over narration can be neatly divided into two categories; those of first- and third-person narratives.
“Narrator: The bizarre and often amusing pages which make up this odd story were discovered at the bottom of a deep crevice in the Great Northern Desert by members of our Earth Probe, Nimbus-II.”
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Introduction: Talking Over It
All narrative mediums: literature, theater, song, television, film, etc. rely on a “narrator” or “narrative agency” to convey the narrative’s story. This narrator can take many forms; in film it can describe both the camera and soundtrack itself as well as the overt narration of a voice-over. The voice-over is the easiest form of narrative agency to find and describe in film, in part because it is usually distinctly separate from the film frame. Not all off camera sound is narration, but the narrator is most often depicted as a nondiegetic sound or sound that does to emanate from objects inside the film frame. The voice-over track usually occurs during the beginning and ending of a film, but it can also occur anywhere within the film. Often the diegetic sound quiets and the voice-over becomes the predominant track. This separation of diegetic sound and voice-over reveals the connection between film’s voice-over narrator and the narrator found in written texts.
Like all parts of film, film narration borrows heavily from textual narratives (such as short stories and novels) as well as theatrical narratives. Many films that have been adapted from plays or novels choose to retain some of the original narration, especially when the narration creates a voice of its own. The narration can also reveal the inner thoughts of major or minor characters. Sometimes these inner thoughts reveal ideas of issues that wouldn’t be apparent without the voice-over. In many ways narration allows the viewer to have more information than even the main characters depicted in the story. To understand the functions of voice-over narration in film it is important to see its place in the overall structure or lack thereof, of narrative in general. The function as well as the form is influence by greater issues of narrative that encompass all types of narrative media.
Structure and Post Structure of Film Narration
While there is much disagreement about the terminology used to describe narratives and their forms, there is agreement, in that a narrative ‘tells a story.’ Mieke Bal, a narratologist, or structuralist narrative theorist, describes the narrative text through the manner of its telling. “A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates (‘tells’) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof.” (Bal 5) Bal notes that this narrating agent can be almost anything- from paintings to comics; most media have been used to express stories. The agent is who/what supplies the narration; who/what conveys the story is most simply described as the narrator. The narrator can be classified, if only contentiously, as first-, second-, and third-person. As Steven Cohan and Linda M Shires note in their analysis of narrative fiction, this distinction is largely linguistic. “Traditional criticism tries to keep agent and agency separate classifying narrators through linguistic designation: first- or third-person pronouns.” (Cohen and Shires 90) These divisions help to situate the narrator relative to the story being told, and thus allow for greater analysis of the narrative structure.
In traditional criticism the first-person narrator is described as being in the story. Cohan and Shires describe the first-person as character bound- “When a narrator is also a character in the story, however peripheral, the narration is character-bound, told in the first person …” (Cohen and Shires 90) First-person narration is often little more than internal monologue; monologues that play well on the stage and the page but seem false in the “neo-realism” of the screen maybe internalized into voice-over. Again, the narration is fundamentally giving the audience information that would not have been easily conveyed in the main body of the movie. When the first-person narration comes from the main character it helps to solidify them as the protagonist and aids the audience in sympathizing with the character. But the ‘truthfulness’ of the third person narrator is always under suspicion, because as a character the audience is more likely to suspect them of having a objective viewpoint.
In opposition to the preserved subjectivity of the first-person narrator the third-person narrator provides the illusion of subjectivity. The third-person narrative is that which has no character, a narrator that is not a player in the story. Film theorist George Wilson points out that first-person narration depicts events through being remembered, dreamed, and so forth and is thus subjective where as third-person narration is not. “Third-person narration then subsumes all film narration that is not tied directly to the subjectivity of a character in there ways.” (Wilson 127) He connects the idea of the invisible and passive camera to that of the narrator who is capable of only witnessing. In text, the narrating agency can be mistaken for the author; in film, the third-person voice-over might be mistaken for the voice of the camera.
The whole idea of third-person agency is under question. “In fact, the term ‘third-person narrator’ is absurd: a narrator is not a ‘he’ or ‘she’ – who might, incidentally, happen to be a narrator as well.” (Bal 22) Bal asserts that the narrator may become a character and even refer to themselves as “I” without figuring into the story as an “actor.” This voice-over narrator is part of the narrative agency, but it is not the final presence of narration. Sarah Kozloff, dialogue and voice-over film theorist, states that there is something beyond the narrator. “…behind the voice-over narrator there is another presence that supplements the nominal narrator’s vision, knowledge, and storytelling powers. This is the narrating agent of all the films (with or without voice-over.)” (Kozloff 44) The narrating agent is the sum and the system of the narration; it is the voice-over, the actors, the writer, the director, the story, the frame, the plot, the light—the story manifest.
While it is impossible to totally untangle the system of narration it is possible to observe and notate, despite the slippery nature of the terms and medium itself. It is possible to further define narration, noting the ‘registers’ between the narration’s history and discourse. Cohan and Shires define the qualities of history and discourse in relation to signs of agency. In other words, how truthful “versus” how “subjective” is the narration.
History and discourse, moreover, differentiate not between texts but between the narrational registers of a single texts. For a text narrates as both history and discourse, regardless of discursive narrator summarizes events matter-of-factly or recounts them scenically, signs of agency disappear form the text and this portion of the story is narrated as history. (Cohen and Shires 92)
History can be described as the ‘truth,’ when it is ‘tainted’ by perspective discourse is created. Even the passive third-person narrator narrates with discourse; even the use of any adjectives reveals the narrator’s biases and subjective. While the terms and ideas of history and discourse help to unify theories of narration, they also help to undermine the strict structure of narratology critics like Mieke Bal subscribe to; though in recent interviews Bal has begun to distance himself from dogmatic adherence to linguistic/ mathematic styled formulas in narratives.
One of the foremost experts in narrative film theory, Gérard Genette, creates his own system of terminology regarding voice-over narration. Genette separates narration in to two major categories. heterodiegetic and homodiegetic. Heterodiegetic narrators, like third-person characters, do not affect the story. Homodiegetic narrators, like first-person narrators, do affect the story. He also defined extradiegetic narrators as those at the first or frame level, intradiegetic as those who tell an embedded story or a story with-in a story, and the metadiegetic narrators that occur in a doubly embedded story or a story with-in a story with-in a story. (Genette 244) These categories allow for greater specificity in defining narrative types, but do little to explain their meaning or significance. Sarah Kozloff writes that the “level of narrative” can affect the audience’s perception of the whole film.
…films often create the sense of character-narration so strongly that one accepts the voice-over narrator as if he of she were the mouthpiece of the image-maker either for the whole film or for the duration of his or her embedded story. We put our faith in the voice not created but as creator. (Kozloff 45)
Like Wilson’s connection of the camera to the third-person narrator, where the audience connects the voice-over’s point-of-view to the camera’s point-of-view. It is possible that the audience can be “fooled” into believing that the voice-over is that of the film-maker. Though there are a few instances where the director of a film narrates the film as the director, directly addressing the audience.
Form and Function of the Film Narrator
Before there was sound film there was narrative agency in film, as embodied by the film frame itself and well and more directly in the intertitles. Films were exploring new visual based narratives, quite unlike the narratives of theater and novels. Without sound, intertitles functioned as narration as well as dialogue. The moralistic narration of the D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) clearly function as a narrator with heavy discourse, just like that of any third-person voice-over narration. Early film theorist, Rudolf Arnheim, asserts that while people watched silent films, the fact that they were silent interrupted the illusion of reality.
People took silent movies for granted because they never quite lost the feeling that what they saw was after all only pictures. This feeling alone, however, would not be sufficient to prevent the lack of sound being felt as an unpleasant violation of the illusion. (Arnheim 315)
Unlike Arnheim, Hugo Munsterberg earlier had reveled in the “photoplay’s” limitation, such as its lack of color, lack of dimension, freedom from the order of time, and expression via pantomime. He believed silent film to be free from the constraints of space and time and thought that film could “overcome reality.” This emphasis on free play encourages the mixture of narrative techniques, and exploring the film medium beyond the recording of ‘reality.’
Ironically, newsreels and documentaries were some of the first sound movies to utilize voice-over documentary. These newsreel films (especially the March of Time series) were noted for their voice-of-god, omnipotent narration. The association of narration with non-fictional subjects, gave voice-over narration in fiction films a air of reality. Other genres adopted the voice-over narration into their style. Kozloff mentions the genres that are most commonly associated with voice-over.
…epics, Westerns, and fantasies. In these genres filmmakers need to impart a great deal of expositional information of unify a story that ranges widely in time and space; narration accomplishes both tasks effortlessly. Furthermore, precisely because it is oral, voice-over can remind views of traditional storytellers, and so evoke the proper atmosphere for the legendary or pseudo-legendary subject matter. (Kozloff 73)
Much like the authority imparted by the voice-of-god narration of the documentaries, the narrators historic connection to the storytellers helps to reinforce the authority of the narration, especially the third-person narratives. The narration can help to lend reality to a fantastical situation, like the unifying narration in the recent fantasy film Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. (2001) The first five scenes of the film are narrated by the character Galadriel in which she explains centuries of back story integral to the complicated plot. This narration also helps to unify the environment and to set the tone for the films ahead. It isn’t surprising to note that the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was based on a set of novels, but in this case the first-person film’s narration is nothing like the novels’ third-person narrator. A large percentage of the third-person narration in film come from book adaptations that have ‘indispensable’ narrators.
While many comparisons can be drawn there are undeniable differences between verbal and visual narration. As Kozloff notes, “Unlike in literature, in film the distinction between telling a story through verbal narration and showing it on the screen through images and action is not so easily discountable.” (Kozloff 13) These differences are particularly significant due to the shift in the system of signs. Textual narratives use written langue to convey the story; in film there is an emphasis placed on the visual narrative. Film language relies less on textual language and more on the less “symbolic” visual language. This does not make film any more or less subjective than it’s written counterparts. It is also contentious to say that film is any less of a form language than actual written language; as both subscribe to forms and are ultimately subject to personal interpretation.
The reliance on the narrator in book adaptations is criticized by film theorist, Brian Henderson; Henderson argues that film narrators do not replicate the functions of written narrators. He also criticizes much of the voice-over in film for being redundant. Narration is often used to “pile” on unnecessary time signifiers. Voice-over can be a successful narrative technique only as long as it conveys something different than the visual narrative and the narrative conveyed in the dialogue. “Double telling” is a successful device only if the point of the narration is to highlight information or themes already expressed in the plot. The question of the narratives purpose is only answered in that it will always give the audience more information and perspective on the characters, events and themes in the film’s story.
Often the narrator is the implied author. In the case of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Peter George’s novel Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb the narrator is not identified with the author but rather the film’s creator. Narrator, a voice from the distant future, critiques the text and creates a report with the audience that could not possibly be the movie’s true audience. Narrator-“The quirkish author of this ancient comedy seems intentionally to have omitted the names of specific countries, possibly in the hope it would land a certain Universality to his theme.” (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.) In Cecil B. DeMille’s film, The Greatest Show on Earth; DeMille, the director, is in fact the uncredited narrator. In these cases the narration functions to make the audience give greater contemplation to the multiple interpretations of the texts by questioning the narrator’s position in regards to the story.
Voice-over narration can help form ironic tension. Post structuralist film theorist, Seymour Chatman, writes: “The different components of the cinematic narrator as diagramed usually work in consort, but sometimes the implied author creates an ironic tension between two of them.” (Chatman 484) This can be illustrated with the 1976 film, Taxi Driver; in the film the main character, Travis Bickle, is the source of the first-person voice-over. The narration becomes less attuned to the reality of the situation; it’s calm belies the frantic psychopath that Travis becomes. Travis’ first-person narrative starts with authority and truth, but deconstructs into an unreliable source. Reliable only to reveal the inner workings of the character’s thoughts. In most films voice-over narration is given authority by the audience; the authority can be lost if the audience recognizes the narrator as unreliable.
The male voice of authority has long been associated with the conveyance of truth and perspective. The male voice carries with it the historical connection to power. For most of film history the most reliable narrators have been males: doctors, police, detectives, judges, professors, and writers among others. Mary Ann Doane asserts that the male voice has been unquestioned in its power. “In the history of the documentary, this voice has been for the most part that of the male, and its power resides in the possession of knowledge and in the privileged, unquestioned activity of interpretation.” (Doane 369) Even the contemporary film, Personal Velocity (2002,) which was written and directed by a woman (Rebecca Miller) includes a male voice-over narrator. The film itself is about three women each fleeing from the men in their lives, each for the own reasons, each in their own way. The question remains, why would such a female oriented movie use the voice of a man to give the third-person narrative. Are men just more authoritive, and thus a natural choice for the third-person voice-of-god. In this case the choice of narrators was probably aestetitic rather than a political statement; but the lack of female narrators in general is more obvious that the dearth of female directors. The lack of both indicates issues of gender equality within the contemporary film system.
Examples of Voice-Over Narration in Film
The ‘voice’ of the narrator was heard in even in the earliest silent films via the use of intertitles. Griffith’s moralistic narration is a perfect example of the narrative voice in silent film. In Intolerance (1916) the narrator states, “When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option.” The intertitle functions as the third-person narrator, giving details but interjecting a substantial dose of discourse. Pickpocket (1959), written and directed by Robert Bresson, has typical first-person narration. The main character Michel, begins the film with voice-over narration describing some of his exploits. The narration returns at the end of the film, to explain Michel’s trip abroad and to reveal his inner thoughts; i.e.- love for Jeanne. While the narration provides some information it is certainly sparse; not providing very many details for the audience to examine. Lady from Shanghai (1947), written and directed be Orson Wells, also includes traditional first-person narrative both at the beginning and at the end of the film. In the science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) the main character, the android Deckard (Harrison Ford), begins to narrate during the final moments of the film. Deckard’s voice-over functions as an epilogue, solidifying the ideas presented in the film. Deckard is forced to confront his connecting to the androids he has just slayed. Like Taxi Driver; Apocalypse Now (1979) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) feature a psychotic and/or unreliable first-person narrators. In A Clockwork Orange the narration directly refers to the audience. The main character, Alex, narrates frequently throughout the film; referring to the audience as “brothers,” “only friends,” and to himself as “your story-teller.” This voice-over style is particularly effective in making the audience feel connected to the killer. Thematically this makes sense; as the Kubrick is making a point about society’s joint responsibility to create a moral code of conduct- to prevent the emptiness that is Alex. As a first-person narrative To Kill a Mocking Bird is an interesting case as the narrator, Scout is an adult looking back and narrating a story that features her as a girl. So while Scout is technically a character in the story, thus a first-person narrator. The adult Scout is unable to effect the storyline and is markedly different from her younger self. This draws into question the use of the term first-person anytime when time has passed between the instance of the story and that of the narration. The passage of time can create a separation of the first-person narrator and the character that they were.
Both Little Foxes (1941) and Star Wars (1977) have long screens of written narration, setting the scene for the rest of the film. These narrations are clearly third-person, they attempt to be purely informative and objective. This is in opposition to the very visible third-person narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), at first the narrator takes the form of authoritative professorly scholar, shown in his office characteristically filled with books. As the film progresses the narrator reveals himself to be more in tune with the wild goings on in the film than would first be suspected, but the narrator retains his dry detachment form the entire situation. In a stranger take on the third-person narrator Woody Allen’s film, Mighty Aphrodite (1995) uses a historical Greek chorus to provide the narration. The chorus at times directly communicates with the main character, Lenny (Woody Allen); but they maintain a separation from the ‘real’ story and thus are more third-person characters/narrators than they are true characters or first-person narrators. The Western Cat Ballou (1965) is narrated via song, Professor Sam the Shade (Nat King Cole) and The Sunrise Kid (Stubby Kaye) play minstrels that occasionally stroll through the scene and relate their narratives in song form; existing as both first-and third-person narrators. The narrator in the film-noir classic, Naked City is the prototypical omnipresent and omnipotent voice-of-god. The dry, pithy narration has obvious connections to the narration of the March of Time newsreels.
There are a number of films that include voice-over narration that is not easily categorized as first- or third-person. One such film is Wes Anderson’s family epic, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The narration references that of a book; but the film is not a book adaptation it was originally written as a screenplay. The film opens with a shot of a book, the first edition of The Royal Tenenbaums, the book opens and the page reads “Chapter One.” The voice-over narrator (Alec Baldwin) begins to read the text as the scene cuts to a five-story house and a older man ringing the doorbell. “Royal Tenenbaum bought the house on Archer Avenue in the winter of his thirty-fifth year. Over the next decade, he and his wife, had three children and then separated.” The narration continues, in typical third-person style, by describing past events and introducing the main characters. But the narration continues into the body of the story, as do the glimpses of the chapter headings consistently reminding the viewers of the ‘book.’ This constant illusion to a non-existent book could be a way to draw the audience’s attention to the allusions to literary classics such as authors like Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, Lillian Ross, J. D. Salinger, John O’ Hara, E. B. White, James Thurber, and John Irving. This use of book trappings helps to reinforce the literary heritage from where the film’s plot springs forth.
Many of the Coen Brother’s films include voice-over narration, from their first film Blood Simple (1984) to their later films such as Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and O’Brother Where Art Thou? (2001) In Blood Simple the narration is clearly in first-person; the private eye, Visser, begins narrating during the film’s opening scene. A barren Texas landscape cuts to a car rushing down a rainy road; the narrator speaks-
The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year–something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help–watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else–that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas… And down here… you’re on your own. (Blood Simple)
This is the only occurrence of the voice over, in part because the Visser character dies at the end of the film. The narrator does little to fill in the viewer; instead it functions to set up the general themes of the film, self-reliance in particular. The Man Who Wasn’t There is another Coen Brother’s film that includes a first-person narrator. In this case the main character, Ed, is the source of the narration. The Ed character rarely speaks, but give frequent and detailed narrations that give the audience incite into this character and his plot. The narrators in Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and O’Brother Where Art Thou? are far more complicated; they are both first-and third-person narrators.
The narration in The Big Lebowski is an example of Coens’ post structuralist approach; from their overt genre switching to the breakdown of the narrator’s authority. The narrator, the Stranger (Sam Elliot), is first introduced as any other third-person narrator. He introduces the main character and sets the scene. As the camera moves across the desert to the edge of Los Angeles the Stranger speaks:
A way out west there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. At least, that was the handle his lovin’ parents gave him, but he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude, that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then, there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And a lot about where he lived, like- wise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place s’durned innarestin’. (The Big Lebowski)
The narration begins normally enough, but halfway through the film the Stranger returns, this time as an actual character. This time we see him as a cowboy, sitting at the bar in the bowling alley. The stranger engages the Dude in conversation, while the Stranger/narrator exists in the film as a visual character he does not effect the story and returns to his duties as the narrator at the end of the film. The fact that the narrator is a cowboy in a film that is best described as anti-film-noir is typical Coen genre switching. The cowboy narrator is probably referring to the common narration in Spaghetti Westerns. I Shot Billy the Kid (1950) a B Western includes voice-over narration in a fail attempt to class up the film. The Big Lebowski is a film-noir detective story starring the worlds most inept and unlikely detective. Noir-films often include voice-over narration, but the usually mode is the hero telling the audience his story with the use of flashbacks. The Coen’s have turn the narrative structure of film-noir on its head and then turned around and switched the genre of the film’s narrator. Perhaps they want the audience to question the films the accepting genre forms, or maybe they’re just having a bit of surreal fun their film narration.
It is impossible to discuss film without using terms to describe phenomena and systems; but all ridged systems are doomed to fail. Thus it is important to acknowledge the limits of the terminology. It is often very revealing to study the areas were the terminology breaks down. Narratives that transcend simple labels are often the most innovative and groundbreaking; these hybrid narratives can also lead to greater understanding of the forms, systems, and terms themselves. Not all voice-over narration can be neatly divided into two categories; those of first- and third-person narratives. There are many examples of these complex and uncategoriable films; The Big Lebowski and The Royal Tenenbaums bring up issues that can be found to lesser degrees in all film narrations. The location and function of the voice-over is key to understanding the effects that it has on the story itself. But what the narration accomplishes is the most important issue involved in voice-over narration.
Arnheim, Rodolf. “Film and Reality.” Braudy and Cohen, 312-6.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Chatman, Seymour. “The Cinematic Narrator.” Braudy and Cohen, 473-86.
Cohan, Steven and Linda M. Shires. Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction. London: Routledge, 1988.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Gunning, Tom. “Narrative Discourse and the Narrator System.” Braudy and Cohen, 461-72.
Henderson, Brian. “Tense, Mood, and Voice in Film: Notes After Genette.” Film Quarterly 36, no 4 (1983): 4-17.
Kozloff, Barbara. Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Lothe, Jakob. Narrative in Fiction and Film: and Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Wilson, George M. Narration in Light: Studies in cinematic Point of View. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986.