EDITORIALS

Is Narration in a Film Ever Good, or Just a Guaranteed Annoyance?

by
October 2, 2007

Just the other day I was watching a video titled Spider-Man 3 - How It Should Have Ended courtesy of Cinematical. It's an animated video that pokes fun at the film showing how certain scenes and the ending should've played out. The very first scene it makes fun of is at the beginning of the movie, where in this video a kid tells Peter Parker not to narrate because it's unnecessary. That little bit got me thinking: is narration in a film ever good? Or is it just a guaranteed annoyance that everyone will complain about? Are there any examples of narration in a film that was actually well done?

What really got me moving on this whole idea was a couple of reviews I read recently of The Assassination of Jesse James, where the authors all complained that the narration was just as bad as the film. Personally I didn't have anything against it, as I loved the movie anyway, but I started to really wonder. It's as if almost every review I read is at some point complaining about narration if the movie has it. The belief in Hollywood is that narration is one of the signs of a bad script, as they had to resort to plainly saying what's going on rather than showing it.

Some other movies that come to mind recently with narration (not necessarily good or bad) are Into the Wild, 300, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Little Children, Flags of Our Fathers, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There's probably a lot I missed, but one of the drawbacks of narration is it just slips your mind when you try to think of movies that include it.

So with that, I am posing the question as to if there any movies out there that have effectively included well-done narration? Some suggestions so far might be Fight Club, Goodfellas, or The Royal Tenenbaums. There are obviously examples of narration done well out there, mostly likely from films adapted from books, but what makes it so bad otherwise? Has anyone else seen The Assassination of Jesse James yet and can comment on if they thought the narration in that was good or bad?

Personally, I'm just not sure whether some narration in recent films has been good or bad. Part of the problem is that narration seems to be such a disconnected element of the film, that I hardly remember which movies did have narration or not. Even then, remembering whether they were good or bad is nearly impossible. I can say for certain that I didn't mind the narration in The Assassination of Jesse James and thought that it helped add to the story just a bit even though it was long anyway.

Are you annoyed by narration? Are there any films you can think of with narration that was actually good?

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  • I'm not annoyed by narration at all, of course provided that it is needed to tell the story. Two films with good narration that come to mind are The Green Mile and American Beauty, even if the narration is more of a book-end thing. I really like the narration in Lord of the Rings too. Fight Club is an excellent example since the voice over narration is used in a pretty creative way throughout the film.
  • Shawshank Redemption.....great narration
  • Jeff
    I guess it fits in to the category of subtitles. Some people dont mind them while others do.
  • Matt
    Casino
  • CDZ
    Me personally, I love narration. Narration is just a story telling aspect of the movie, like a campfire story with a visual. My favorite was Forrest Gump, whether it qualifies as narration I don't know but that's what popped in my head while reading this. Just like everything else tho some of them are good and some of them are bad. Also, I agree with the subtitle comment.
  • jason_md2020
    Best narration in a film: Apocalypse Now. I also might be in a minority here, but I actually liked the narration in Blade Runner, especially at the end as Deckard watches Batty die. It's just like any other technique used in film, some films do it well and some are better served without it.
  • Marc
    I agree, Shawshank Redemption great narration... makes the film almost....
  • Mark P
    "The Big Lebowski" and "Raising Arizona" are 2 great examples of good narration from the Coen Brothers. "Sunset Blvd." is another good use of it. Basically, as long as the writing and voice talent are very good (as in "Little Children"), then I enjoy it. All other times, it's just annoying. As for the Spiderman films, it fits within the comic book genre to have voice-over narration. That could be be argued to be more of a convention of the genre than an expository necessity.
  • Nate
    If this debate gets out of hand Morgan Freeman might be out of work.
  • Mikel
    Narration works very well in Bergman's Wild Strawberries. It also works in at the start of Ikiru. Narration seems to work well in Godard's stuff too.
  • I couldn't imagine Little Children without the narration. It was perfect.
  • Karni
    Shawshank Redemption is proof positive that narration does not a bad movie make.
  • Zach
    The first movie I thought of was "The Shawshank Redemption". A really good use of narration. It could really go either way though. I wasn't expecting the narration in "Little Children". It wasn't necessarily bad, just a little unusual. The narration in "The Royal Tenenbaums" is excellent. Narration is used effectively in a lot of film-noir, but that also just pertains to the style. Personally I love narration if it compliments the story and if it is used right. Ha, even so, this whole discussion does make me recall that line in "Adaptation", though. "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."
  • Yeah, Rule #1 by people who never wrote or directed a film themselves - Don't use voiceovers. Luckily, Welles in Citizen Kane and Lady From Shanghai and Scorsese/Shrader in Taxi Driver missed that chapter along with the other great films already mentioned.
  • Baskar
    I do not think Narration is Bad or Good. In fact there are lots of excellently narrated Film Noirs like Sunset Blvd., Big Clock, Detour, Dark Passage ...etc Film Noir opened the possiblities of innovations in narration.
  • Scott
    It obviously depends on the actor (voice actor) and the mood of the movie. Mostly, let's just admit it, it's annoying. I usually am cool with DeNiro doing it, but in "Casino" Scorcese had like every f-ing guy doing it, which was sort of cool, but overdone to hell... Even a side-character narrates in one scene, it's like "wtf?" But when done right, it's a good thing and can get you more inside the mind of someone in the movie, or just help you get a better feel for the setting/mood/plot. I agree with the one guy about Morgan Freeman, but I will add, I think he is the best narrator voice I have heard. For some reason, American Beauty just came to mind. I liked it in that movie. Kevin Spacey is a good actor though. I like narration better in dramatic movies. I agree with the Spiderman thing... That draws me to talk about the problem with a lot of superhero movies... We want action, and to see our superhero kick asses. Yeah we want some plot, but stop cutting corners to save costs, and give us a shitload of action, damnit. And freaking Venom should have been in the movie a ton in Spidey 3. And damnit, I am on a roll. Full suit Vader should have at least went on one mission in Star Wars Episode 3, I felt so jipped and pissed leaving the theater from that one. Just one f-ing mission, it's all I freaking ask. Not human-looking Anakin slaughtering children. Actual Darth Vader with the suit on laying massacre on some worthy opponents, btches. Lucas you bastard.
  • Matt
    LOL that post was awesome.
  • Nathan
    I didn't mind the narration in the Spider-Man movies, I was just really thankful that it wasn't friggin' Stan Lee doing it!
  • spopp
    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That is my single favorite example of narration abd possibly the only narration in which the narrator forgets things and then chastizes himself for doing so, hilarious. Also Arrested Development, specifically the episode in which the narrator gets angry because the TV show within the show about the Bluths is narrated by a hack narrator.
  • Spencer
    HELLO-FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF-All time greatest use of narration. It's in your face first person narration and it kicks butt. Narration has to be used in a unique manner and fit the story. If those two rules are met, then narration 100% augments the film. And this is coming from a man with appeal to authority-I'm a scriptwriter.
  • Brendan
    Just to name a movie where "narration", or thinking to the audience, was Truly done well and Necessary, i would have to say Memento.... his thoughts were basically the movie
  • Jo
    Good post. I have not seen a film/tv show distracted by narration. They kinda work especially in first -person comedies like Sex and the City, My Name is Earl, etc. Though I'm split with my wife about the Japanese movie Tony Takitani, film based on Haruki Murakami short story. I think it was essential, she thinks it's an audio book. Can somebody give a movie made awful by narration?
  • Doug Carter
    I'll add two movies to this list. 1) Dragnet. 2) Fletch. I thought Fletch was a very funny movie. Thoughts??
  • Mat
    Forrest Gump
  • Mat
    Clockwork Orange.
  • ivan
    I would say Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. the narrator's voice is really annoying
  • alexus
    Amelie, great example of fresh feeling narration. i think the usual suspects has some narration in it too.
  • Edward Norton's character in Fight Club is actually called the 'Narrator' and I must say he really makes it work with his half-detached geeky coolness. Also, it's composed of witty and fresh, very well written remarks. Same goes for American Beauty, which apart from Spacey's perfect-for-the-part voice, is just majestic writing. Also, note that this is hardly narration, as it's only the prologue and epilogue, which are joint and apparantly part of the same 'entering' and 'exiting' his life story. Maybe there should be an category for 'awesome opening narrations', like The Brothers Bloom and Amélie, where dry witty narration is used over a montage introducing the characters at breakneck speed.. All 4 of these films are among my 10 favourite films and might not have been without their voice-overs. And to join in on the Vicky Christina Barcelona annoyance, can somebody please bribe the sound mixer to release an audiotrack online without the grossly un-appealing narration (really, worst voice ever), that's actually more like a guide track for the blind (or moronic). It doesn't add anything. And Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is indeed the ultimate narration film.. "I'm like my dad telling a joke.. 'oh yeah I forgot, the cowboy rode a blue horse'.. This is fucking bad narration"
  • Stilltheman
    i thinks, narration is not a bad thing in itself as some have already stated, and unless it is done wrong - it's most generally speaking - not a kill joy. Yes, narration has been, and is being abused by some bad to do writers & filmmakers as a bad excuse to justify their characters, help audiences make sense of ''bad directing'' and aid the storymind etc BUT if due respect can be given, it should be given to those who do not treat narrations as a last minute resort. Through well thought out creative copy, written and re-written to make it perfect - i believe narration is as important a part of filmmaking as casting, acting, music, special effects and editing etc because - when it's not done right - like I've done to write this post on a pda phone in the middle of a traffic jam, then Narration loses it's purpose. Narration is a complimentary part of a movie, the seasoning that adds FLAVOUR when done creatively...
  • Vivekanchalia
    what about million dollar baby......thats pretty neat
  • Sahar
    how can I state a process of staging for a film?
  • shawn
    Ted Need I say more!

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