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

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

8 thoughts on “The Great Voice Over Debate”

  1. I agree that voice-over can be done well and poorly, and should not be used in all cases or be absent in all cases.

    It can be used similarly to character thought and narration in written fiction. These things can, however, be replaced by action on the screen, but that doesn’t mean they have to be.

    Some people think that if something can also be done in written fiction or theatre then it is uncinematic but I think anything that can be done in cinema can be cinematic.

  2. Just read on IMDb that pretty much every Kubrick movie has narration.

    Curiously I don’t seem to remember those. Except, I’ve only just seen BARRY LYNDON and that one opens with a great example of successful voice over.

    • Hi Karel,

      From memory, I’m not sure that most of his films have narration but a few that he has used it well in are:

      Barry Lindon
      A Clockwork Orange
      his unproduced Napoleon screenplay

  3. Two more recent films with V/O’s that spring to mind:

    – Zombie Land
    – Kick-Ass

    Not as highbrow as some of the titles mentioned above, but these worked and worked well.


  4. Some other well-done voice-overs are The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Double Indemnity, and American Beauty.

    The Wonder Years, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, and My Name is Earl are good examples from TV.

  5. Pingback: All Time Best: Opening Voice Over | In Bruges Opening Voice Over | Best Movie Moments | The Athletic Nerd

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