Talking Points: The Importance of Voiceover Narration

I present to you a case study. Let us save the big reveal for later and call our subjects Film A and Film B. Both films are based on best-selling books. Film A chose to use significant passages of the author’s prose as voiceover narration. Film B decided not to. While many may disagree, I will argue that Film A is a much better film for having embraced the need to share the protagonist’s inner-monologue with the audience. While Film B made many shrewd choices in its adaption from book to screen, the lack of insight into the main character’s thoughts costs the viewer.

Sick of my alphabet soup? Okay then, let’s get to it. Film A is Fight Club, and Film B is The Hunger Games.  Now many will argue that voiceover narration is a cop-out technique used to exposit information and plot in lieu of letting the story do the work. I agree. However, if a filmmaker is adapting source material done in first-person narration, there needs to be some way to rectify what the audience will lose in not being able to “hear” the thoughts of the main character.

With Fight Club, screenwriter Jim Uhls took huge portions of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel verbatim and inserted it in as Edward Norton’s voiceover narration. In case you’re the one person on the planet who hasn’t seen Fight Club yet, I won’t unveil any spoilers here. Suffice to say, being intricately connected with Norton’s thoughts in the film is pivotal for the story to play out as it does. There is no way around it without jeopardizing the substance of the film.

For The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins co-wrote the screenplay with Gary Ross and Billy Ray. For this reason alone, I am truly baffled that all of Katniss’s internal monologue is missing from the film. If you didn’t read the book, it is written from Katniss’s perspective in first-person present. She is a cunning, resourceful and determined protagonist, but I feel these attributes of her character are lessened by forfeiting voiceover narration.

Here’s a specific example: in both the book and the film, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) sends supplies in to Katniss. These supplies are procured from “sponsors,” aka rich folks who take a liking to a certain tribute competing in the Hunger Games. Now, in the film version, Haymitch’s gifts come with one sentence notes, explaining the item or encouraging Katniss to engage in a certain activity to better her chances of more supplies. In essence, Haymitch is the brains and Katniss follows his advice. However, in the book, the supplies have no notes attached. Instead, Katniss is left to figure out what Haymitch is implying with each supply. In one case, he sends a meager offering of food when medicine is needed, which Katniss is able to figure means she needs to get hot and heavy with Peeta for sponsors to pay-up for the needed supplies. Essentially, Katniss must rationalize and think out the puzzle Haymitch offers her, which empowers her as the heroine and relegates Haymitch to his proper role of mentor.

“Okay, let’s make out, but it’s only for leg ointment.”

On a more general level, there are a bazillion shots of Katniss in the arena just thinking or sulking. I kept thinking how much stronger these scenes would be if we could hear a bit of what she was thinking. All power to Jennifer Lawrence, who does a great job in the lead role, but I can only stare at her pouting against a tree trunk so many times before I start to wonder how the scene could’ve been improved. It’s also important to note that not all films which do opt for voiceover narration succeed in their endeavors. In fact, I believe the notion mentioned earlier that voiceover is considered a screenwriting crutch has frightened-off writers from using it as frequently. While this may be for the best, certain characters deserve the intelligence and integrity their inner-monologues instill within them. I am Jack’s passion for knowing my narrator.

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  1. I’m not entirely sure why, but the majority of my favorite films have a voiceover.

    Shawshank Redemption
    American Beauty
    American History X
    Fight Club

    to name a few

  2. There is one major problem that I find with your insistence on using voice over in the Hunger Games.

    (disclaimer: I have only seen the movie, I have not read the book)

    Fight Club was a movie about the common internal psychological structure of mankind in the modern world and a feeling of emptiness. It is a movie completely about the author’s state of mind.

    Hunger Games wasn’t a story about the mind. It seemed like a story about the over-arching world where the Hunger Games took place, and the personal struggles of Katniss in this world.

    Coming out of the movie, I remember saying to friends, “I’m really glad they had no voiceover narration.” Voice over narration is a damn good way to treat your audience like an idiot, instead of allowing them to pay close attention to the movie and draw them into the world itself. There was this sense of foreboding throughout the entire movie where at any given moment, someone could attack Katniss. Do you think that kind of mood could be kept with voice-over narration?

    People don’t break into monologue’s at random times, especially when there’s nobody to talk to. I don’t think monologues had any place in that movie.

    Fight Club did very well with voice narration, but that’s because it still didn’t treat its audience like an idiot.

    Maybe my opinion would change if I read the book, but I just don’t see how narration would have helped the Hunger Games.

    I think this largely goes into book vs. movie. The people who have read the book see the movie incarnation and they’re not sure if movie only people are going to understand some subtle nuisance, so they just assume that people wouldn’t pick up on it. You should know as well as anyone that the audience is a lot smarter than some authors give credit.

  3. I agree. I like the movie, but done right a narration could have given the uninitiated in the audience a much deeper insight to Katniss that you just didn’t get in the movie.

    I, too, question why they left out a narration.

  4. jsternberg, I think the reason you are disagreeing with the author is exactly because you haven’t read the book(s).
    The books are not about the Hunger Games universe, they are about the way Katniss develops as a person in the setting of this cruel world, becoming more and more adapted to survive in a world that hates her by becoming hateful herself.

    You may have just proved the point yourself – without voiceover narration, this development Katniss undergoes gets lost, and the film is suddenly about the Hunger Games universe and no longer about the way the protagonist develops.

  5. @Devon I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the article. I do try to employ a variety of tones in my writing, so perhaps you’ll enjoy some of my other work.

    @Andy Strong list. I’d add Forrest Gump too.

    @David Well said.

    @jsternberg Thanks for sharing your take. In general, VO is used as a way to keep the audience up-to-speed. My article was really a response to my own surprise in wishing Hunger Games had a VO. I’d argue that the book vs. movie thing is a bit of a moot point in this instance, given that Suzanne Collins co-wrote the screenplay. Many books have been turned into great films. For me the key is simply to find what made the book enjoyable and make that the core of your film. What made the Hunger Games enjoyable for me was following Katniss as she navigated a dystopian future, learning the pitfalls and politics of her society. I felt this was missing from the film, because we don’t get any insight into her perception of events.

    @pingless Very nicely said! Thanks for your response.

  6. I totally agree with the article. And I believe that anyone that has red the book should agree as well. Maybe there is a Director’s cut version that does not cry so hard for VO…

  7. I think The Hunger Games would have been poorer for adding in voice narration. While I agree that the movie missed some key story points that would have been easy to include, such as the lamb stew, Haymitch’s characteristics, and the muttations, voiceover narration was not one of them. When VO’s work, as you mentioned, they work. But when they fail, they amount to telling the audience instead of showing.

    Fight Club worked because the narration was stylistic. It popped, it was dynamic, witty, and evoked character. In THG, its the mode to tell the story. We hear Katniss’s every thought and action and decision. And in the books, I often got sick of Katniss’s constant introspection and wanted to get to the action. The movie would have been worse for including that. It’s quite enough that we see Katniss shaking before she goes up the tube or crying hysterically after the death of Rue. Fight Club is visceral. Hunger Games is intellectual.

    The only other reason to include it would be infodumping, which is done in the movie by other means. Voiceover should not be used for plugging plot holes.

    So there’s no need for a VO. But I hope that future movies can include some of the missing characterization that made Katniss so sympathetic.

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