Top 10 Uses Of Voice-Over Narration In Film

Voice-over narration in film is a technique in which a voice, that is heard off-screen, complements on-screen action by commonly supplementing plot or enhancing character. Here we take a look at 10 great examples…

Usually uttered by a character from within the film, the voice-over typically aims to further the plot and story development. It can be used as a way to recount past events or complement mood. Voice-over narration in film, particularly with the fictional narrative, isn’t common but there are perhaps a surprising number of examples where it is used in popular, commercially successful mainstream cinema. Indeed, voice-over narration isn’t considered by some as “fair game”. One of the films that makes this list even saw critics claim that narration (by a dead man) breaks the rules of filmmaking. The director fired back: “Who wrote the rules? There are no rules.”

Here’s the top 10 uses of voice-over narration in film…

10. The Big Short (2015)

Ryan Gosling plays the narrator in this Oscar nominated 2015 film. The Big Short, to put it mildly, is confusing to those of us who are not well versed in the sleazy and labyrinthine world of high finance, housing bubble bursts and sub prime mortgages. The voice over narration is used to perfection; a much needed narrative technique used in conjunction with others to help keep the audience up to speed.

There are fourth wall-breaking monologues, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining economics as well as Selena Gomez and a celebrity chef using cooking metaphors and gambling to explain the economic crisis. The filmmakers use any and all tricks to explain a complicated mess of financial chicanery in order to help the audience understand. Personally, I knew very little about the world in The Big Short, but the voice over narration and other forms of narrative kept me engaged throughout.

9. Molly’s Game (2017)

Molly's Game - Jessica Chastain

The newest film on the list came out just a few months prior to the writing of this piece but it absolutely deserves a place on this top 10. Molly Bloom, as played by Jessica Chastain, is a former Olympic skier who broke her leg in about 100 places thus ending her Olympic career. She eventually got a job in Hollywood as a book keeper to a young, cocky billionaire.

She would eventually run the most exclusive high stakes poker game in the country. It attracted A-list actors, sports stars, billionaires and the Russian mob. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay and uses the voice-over in almost every scene. And he does it with incredible efficiency. We learn what Molly has to learn, all on the fly. Telling the story beautifully and convincingly is Chastain. She keeps us informed and what she learns, the audience learns.

8. Trainspotting (1996)

Ewan McGregor narrates the film and by doing so he takes us into his world of heroine addiction. “Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and it’s still nowhere near it.” This is the world that Mark Renton and his friends live in. They live to get high and to them, there’s no better feeling in the universe. McGregor, with his thick Scottish accent, takes us through his daily exploits of getting high.

He eventually tries to kick the habit and through his narration, we start to empathize with him and root for him to kick said habit. McGregor also injects some comedy into the performance, establishing an infectious, likeable personality that is enhanced by his narration; this goes a long way to getting the audience on his side.

7. A Christmas Story (1983)

A Christmas Story

Jean Shepherd is the author of the book on which the film is based. He also provides the narration as the adult version of Ralphie. He tells us the tale of his younger self trying to get his parents to buy him a Red Ryder BB gun.

Along the way, we get a glimpse of a different time in America. We hear his thoughts on being beaten up by the school bully, his chicanery towards his parents to get him to buy the BB gun and generally what it is like growing up in small town America in the 1940s. A Christmas Story might as well be a Norman Rockwell painting if it came to life and it is accentuated by Jean Shepherd’s perfect narration. “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

6. American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty takes its cue from the film at number 3 on this list. The first voice of the movie you hear is Kevin Spacey’s. While seemingly floating through the clouds, you find out that he is dead and the story we are about to sit through for the next two hours is his recounting of his final year on Earth. Lester Burnham tells us that for the last twenty years of his life, he felt like he was in a coma, and then he wakes up and starts living his life.

This awakening will ironically be the cause of his death, but along the way, we get to witness his reckoning. Through his narration, through his eyes, we witness the breakdown of the American family. We get to see how job and status and money have created a disconnect between Lester and his family, especially his wife. He decides that he has nothing left to lose and so he completely changes his life. The narration in this film drives the story while maintaining the audience’s perspective within Lester’s point of view.

5. Stand By Me (1986)

Top 10 Performances By Child Actors & Teenagers In English-Language Films - Top 10 Films

As narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, Stand By Me is the story being told by an adult Gordie Lachance as he recalls his youthful days growing up in the fictional Stephen King town of Castle Rock. After the untimely death of his friend, Chris Chambers, adult Gordie recalls a story about how he, Chris and two other friends trekked along the train tracks in search of a dead body.

Along the way way we get to know the four kids; we laugh with them, we cry with them; we share their fears, their hopes, their anxiety about the future. We get to hear stories about the local junk yard dog named Chopper as he is told to “sick balls”. The narration gives a bittersweet look into the lives of these kids and the movie ends, with what I consider the best last words of a movie, “I never had friends like I did when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

4. Rounders (1998)

Classic Poker Scenes, Rounders - Top 10 Films

“Here’s the thing, if you can’t spot the sucker at the table in the fist hour, then YOU are the sucker.” And so this brings us into the underground and high stakes world of poker. Matt Damon plays Mike McDermott, a law student who has the talent to be one of the greatest poker players. By day he learns about property law and how to cross-examine a witness and at night he visits the Russian closed-door poker rooms run by KGB (played by John Malkovich).

In 2018, many of us have heard of Doyle Brunson, Texas no limit poker, the nut straight and the World Series of poker. In 1998, things were different and poker had not exploded the way it has in the last 20 years. Matt Damon has to edify his audience about the nuances of poker while keeping all of us entertained at the same time. Rounders was a niche movie when it came out but has since gone on to be considered the film that introduced the world to high stakes poker.

Damon takes us on his journey as he tells us how to read another player’s tells (things they do unconsciously that might give away the strength or weakness of their hand), what hands are the best ones to play and so much more. Everyone wanted to be a poker player after Rounders. Damon’s voice-over brought us into a world that was foreign to most of us and he taught us how to play the game.

3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder,

In one of his rare publicised conversations, legendary Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder declared: “The thing about voice-overs – you have to be very careful there that you don’t show what they’re already seeing. Add to what they’re seeing.”

With Sunset Boulevard, Wilder inventively uses a dead man’s narration as the voice-over to his film. As previously mentioned, some critics accused Wilder of cheating by using narration from a dead man in which Wilder responded with the quote about there being no rules.

The film opens with scriptwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in the pool of a Hollywood home with two bullet wounds in his back and one in his stomach, while announcing in voice-over “before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”

By showing us Gillis’ death at the beginning, Wilder builds the audience’s appetite to find out who did it and why. This classic influenced countless scriptwriters in realising how far the voice-over technique can be taken, and the relationship between the narrator and death is one that has been explored many times since.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Morgan_Freeman_tim-robbins_shawshank-redemption

Morgan Freeman’s voice was once described as “buttery caramel for the ears” and his legendary status as the best voice in Hollywood might have started with this film. In it he plays life long convict Ellis Boyd Redding, or Red for short. He’s a prisoner at the notorious prison Shawshank. He tells the story of meeting Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who was convicted of murdering his wife.

As it turns out Andy is actually innocent and perhaps the only one in the prison who is. As Red tells us the story over a period of two decades, we get to know Andy, Red and the other prisoners as they try to get through life in the prison. We go along on the journey with Red and with Freeman’s calm and soothing voice, we get to know and respect the people he shares the yard with. And when horrible things happen, Red takes us on the journey as well. He also tells us that you either get busy living or you get busy dying. Words to live by.

1. Goodfellas (1990)

Joe Pesci, Goodfellas - Top 10 Films

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. So are Henry Hill’s words as told to us by Ray Liotta. He narrates the film and the voice-over is used to further the plot and sometimes the fourth wall is broken so that Henry can tell us what we are seeing from his point of view and what is going to happen next.

Nicolas Pileggi wrote the book based on his experiences of the real mafia. Liotta’s voice brings us along for the ride. Throughout the movie we get a glimpse on the inside. In many ways, Goodfellas takes us deeper into the mob than even The Godfather did. We get a first hand account of what Henry is seeing, feeling and experiencing.

It’s a horrifying film about murder, torture, betrayal and deceit. Liotta gives us his thoughts and regales us with his recollection of what it was like on the inside. He tells us that “if you are part of a crew, no one ever tells you they are going to kill you. There aren’t any arguments or curses like there are in the movies. Your murderers come at you with smiles, they come as your friends.”

Scorsese is a master of utilising voice-over to immerse his audience in the shoes of the protagonist. We get to see what’s behind the curtain and some of it is glitz and glamour and money and parties. But the rest of it, as told to us by Hill, is blood and murder. Ray Liotta is responsible for giving us the best voice-over narration in film.

Honourable mentions to: The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, and The Wolf of Wall Street

Written & Compiled by Dan Grant

Your turn? What are your fave examples of voice-over narration in film? Agree with this list? Disagree? Let us know…

About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Jupiter1 Reply

    Good picks. Can’t beat Goodfellas. Scorsese has used voice-over well a few times. Casino is another good one.

  2. CineGirl Reply

    Some good alternatives: The Royal Tenenbaums and other Wes Anderson films. Apocalypse Now, Memento and A Clockwork Orange also spring to mind where voice-over is used to help either structure the surreal nature of the film or help explain ambiguity or mystery.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Memento and A Clockwork Orange are definitely films I considered. I’m not the biggest Wes Anderson fan so none of his work made my list. But as always, I always appreciate your feedback CineGirl.

  3. Ray Simmons Reply

    No place for American Psycho or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!?

    • Dan Grant Reply

      American Psycho is another one I considered. Ferris Bueller would have been an excellent choice, but I purposely kept it off this list because most of the narration was 4th Wall stuff and I’ve already done a list like that.

  4. Finnerman Reply

    I love the irony in American Psycho’s VO.

  5. Garrett Coulson Reply

    Robert Mitchum’s voice-over in FAREWLL, MY LOVELY, is, and always will be, a personaL FAVOUITE

  6. Roger Keen Reply

    It’s common in film noir and as such common in the 40s and 50s when the genre was enjoying its peak. Double Indemnity is an obvious addition. Of course, Citizen Kane has a pretty famous voice-over narration too. More recently, I did like American Beauty.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Citizen Kane was another I considered.

  7. Rita Feltrup Reply

    Farewell My Lovely is one of my absolute faves.

  8. Mark Fraser Reply

    Sorry – can’t see past the exclusion of Apocalypse Now; nor Carlito’s Way for that matter, although I agree with quite a few of the others. Gary Oldman in Romeo is Bleeding could also have been contender; Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas another.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      You’re right about Apocalypse Now. It certainly could have been here. Such a terrific film and some great narration no doubt. Fear and Loathing is another I considered. But it’s just a top ten list so unfortunately some really good choices were left out.

  9. Michael Scoates Reply

    I think anything with Morgan Freeman in it could probably count – Million Dollar Baby, Se7en and so on. If he’s in it he’s usually narrating brilliantly.

    I also like examples where the character of the voice is a surprise, e.g. A.I. Artificial Intelligence or, if you prefer a schizophrenic twist, Fight Club.

    Personal favourites? Deadpool, Kill Bill, The Martian.

    I think there are so MANY examples of good narration and variations on it that everyone will have a different list. I’m looking at the list and the extra films mentioned above and nodding my head 🙂

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Deadpool is one of my faves and it was considered. Fight Club is another I considered. There really are so many good films that could have made the list.

  10. Callum Reply

    Perfect number one. I can’t think of a better voice over than Goodfellas.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I almost had to flip a coin between Goodfellas and Shawshank. Both use the VO narration to perfection, but ultimately Goodfellas won out by a slim margin.

  11. Keith Hicks Reply

    I love voice overs and anything that breaks the 4th wall like a character talking toward the camera.

    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Scott Pilgrim VS the World are favs.

  12. Rory Fish Reply

    Great effort whittling what can only have been a huge shortlist into ten. I think Farewell My Lovely and Double Indemnity would be worthy ahead of The Big Short and Molly’s Game (neither I liked much), and Apocalypse Now is another favourite of mine. Goodfellas is classic and deserves to be number one. I like the inclusion of Stand By Me too – Dreyfuss channels Stephen King as if King is talking directly to us. I love that.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      A little bit about me…FWIW.

      I don’t have a lot of knowledge about films before 1968. It’s something I’m trying to change now that I have access to a whole new world of on line content that includes streaming and such. I haven’t seen nearly as many “classics” as I should. So therefore, films like Farewell my Lovely and Double Indemnity would not have been considered for this list. I remember seeing both of them in film class in the 90’s, but that would have been the only time I have seen them and I don’t remember much about them. There is the exception to the rule of course as I have seen (for example) such pre 1968 classics like Psycho, Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz (of course), Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane (one of the most horrible films to sit through…tedious and boring), Casablanca, Maltese Falcon and a few others. I simply don’t have the knowledge to comment on many of the films before my time. I am trying to see more of the classics but it takes time. So for those of you who do read my lists, you will more than likely notice that many of the films are heavily slanted towards the 1970’s and on.

      Getting back to your comment Rory, yes there were about 25 films I considered putting on the list and Apocalypse Now is certainly one of them. Not only does it have great narration, it’s a fantastic film. But for me, I was blown away by Molly’s Game and I appreciated the effort to explain things to us in a unique way in The Big Short. So that’s why they are there and Apocalypse is not.

  13. Chris Reply

    I love the list idea and some excellent picks! Morgan Freeman is the gold standard. I put Jack Nicholson’s voice-over in About Schmidt and Christian Bale’s in American Psycho pretty high up too.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Yes! Bale in American Psycho is another great one!

  14. Dan
    Dan Reply

    Wonderful look at voice-over in film, Dan. As always you’ve showcased your love of the moving image with a passionate look at some great films.

    I recently watched Magnolia which includes a voice-over at the beginning and end. It’s a good example of how VO can be used but also, as it’s used sparingly and quite specifically as an intro and outro tool, shows how VO narration can be included to achieve different creative objectives.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Thanks Dan. I appreciate the kind words.

      Magnolia is another that I considered as well. There really are, much to my slight surprise, a lot of films that use the voice over narration to their advantage. I just saw Ready Player One and it too uses it well, especially at the beginning.

  15. Dan
    Dan Reply

    Strangely enough the last three films I’ve watched have all had voice-over narration – Magnolia, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead and American Made.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      There’s actually quite a few films that seem to have voice over narration these days. I just watched American made as well, seems like all drug movies benefit from narration. Ready Player One made good use of it as well.

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