‘Show, Don’t Tell’: The Pros and Cons of Onscreen Narration

Like with everything else in the screenwriting universe, there are no absolutes. I’ll bet you can name half a dozen movies that use voice over to devastating effect. But, if like me, you found yourself more than mildly irritated by Good Omens‘ rather pointless/patronizing/intrusive narration by the otherwise estimable Frances McDormand, then I think it’s worth a look at when narration in TV and film serves a purpose, and when it doesn’t.
 
 
The clearest reference for GO was The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – radio/TV/film, which worked (with Peter Jones and Stephen Fry as ‘The Book’) as an intrinsic part of the show, unlike Omens, where to me it felt like a device to spoon-feed viewers who weren’t up to speed on the point of the show.
 
 
Whatever that was.
 
 
So – where does narration work, and why? It’s tend to be more of a film rather than TV device – and then mainly in period drama for the small screen, but with the big exception of sitcoms such as Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, Sex in the City, My Name is Earl, Wonder Years, Scrubs, etc
 
 
Where movie narration works? Deadpool IIBarry Lyndon, Tom Jones, Grand Hotel Budapest, Sunset Boulevard, Shawshank, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane. and a few others.
 
 
And when it doesn’t…
 
 

Bad voiceover montage (Blade Runner)

 
 
 
Blade RunnerThe Great Gatsby (2013), The Big Sleep (Robert Mitchum re-make), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (how I hate that title), a lot of Terrence Malick’s work (IMO), DuneDances with Wolves, etc
 
 
The bored, disinterested tones of Harrison Ford (Blade Runner) and Mitchum (The Big Sleep) contrast mightily with the rich ironic commentary of Michael Horden (Barry Lyndon).
 
 

Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" [Opening Scene]

 
 
Good Omens falls firmly into the latter camp, over-expository, poorly written and distancing the viewer from the onscreen action.
 
 
Maybe the late Terry Pratchett insisted that Neil Gaiman included narration to preserve some of his timeless prose from the novel?

Stephen Arnell

Culture Comment Content Provider. Portrait courtesy of artist Darren Coffield. 'Non satis me tempo'

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