Visual stimuli is not my forte the way it is Stevie’s. Behind writing (okay…and television), my favorite hobby is probably knitting. I’ve been knitting for almost five years, but it’s very off and on, and my skills are intermediate at best.
Learning new skills is difficult for me because I have trouble interpreting diagrams and have to watch video tutorials several times. (This is also why I’m hopeless at crochet; I can’t count the number of stitches in a chain to save my life.) I have dreams of being able to write my own patterns one day, but realistically it’s too hard for me to visualize what I would want to make.
That intro is a roundabout way of saying that I’d like to be better at film than I am. Film analysis is something I’m interested in, though I never took a film class. I think I have a decent grasp of on the level of story analysis and even visual metaphors from time to time. When it comes to camerawork, however, I’m hopeless at picking out how the shots enhance the storytelling. I like to watch films, but I could never direct one. (At least for the moment. Learning to write about film in a technical way is on my very long list of personal improvements.)
There are plenty of movies about writers and writing. Some of these are good. My favorite is Barton Fink and I enjoy Misery when I’m feeling sinister. But I have a very soft spot for movies that feature narrators. The “B.A. in English” side of me knows that using the term “narrator” is doing something of a disservice to the field of narratology.
My grasp of this aspect of literary theory never felt more than tenuous when I was in school. Now that I’m out it’s weaker still, and my public library lacks almost any text that could be classified as critical theory. For the sake of this article, when I say “narrator,” I mean “someone giving voice to the action.” It’s a base definition, but it works for a short blog article.
Many films are narrated by characters that appear in the film, sometimes giving commentary on the action as it is happening (I Capture the Castle and Heathers). Some offer a retrospective of the events (Stand By Me, The Virgin Suicides, Election, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Shawshank Redemption, Amadeus). But my favorites are the ones where the voice behind the voiceover does not appear in the film (or appears very little, as is the case in Moonrise Kingdom). In other words, I love films with the credit “narrated by [famous actor],” especially if that famous actor is Alec Baldwin or Morgan Freeman. These include: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Little Children, Rocket Science, and Amélie.
I think what I like about films which feature narrators is that they have a very literary quality to them. As you can imagine, I sometimes have trouble picturing the actions that unfold in novels. So perhaps I like these films or assign them this “literary quality” because it unburdens me of that effort. Some people find them annoying, but I’m far more annoyed by films with over-expository dialogue. Usually I find the narration, much like narration in books, provides insight and context in an efficient way.
In winter 2011, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came out. Reviews of the film noted its extreme subtlety—sometimes the plot moved forward on a look one character gave another. This is something the medium of film can accomplish, and of course bringing a narrator to the soundtrack to flesh out the images obliterates that same subtlety. A narrator is a sandwich-board-wearing, cowbell-ringing reminder that shouts, “HEY, THERE’S A NARRATIVE STRUCTURE AT WORK HERE!” This would have been annoying in a spy thriller, but it works in many other frameworks.
Of course, so often these are films whose characters cannot communicate with each other. The film Rocket Science is about a stutterer who stumbles onto an extremely competitive high school debate team. The main character can barely get a word out when he’s trying to talk to the other characters. Sometimes the inability to communicate is not a literal condition. The title character in Amélie has a lot going on in her mind but remains very quiet. Although her looks to the camera and to other characters say a lot, her eyes are incapable of telling the whole story.
I think overall, the use of a narrator in a movie does what much of fiction does—it relays the experiences embedded in multiple characters’ experiences. Narrators allow the viewer to juggle information regarding several of the people onscreen at once. And a soothing voice talking me through the action is almost never unwelcome.
What do you think – do you love the reassuring voice of Alec Baldwin pulling you along, or would you prefer silence do the talking? Do you prefer narrators who appears as a character in the film? What are your favorite (or least favorite) films that include narrators?