Why do we hate voiceovers? Are they really “flaccid, sloppy writing” (as Adaptation.’s McKee put it)? Or do they serve a purpose, have meaning, point to something worthwhile?
In “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa),” Seymour Chatman sums up the common (mis)conception of voiceovers:
“The dominant mode [in film] is presentational, not assertive [or descriptive]. A film doesn’t say, ‘This is the state of affairs,’ it merely shows you that state of affairs. Of course, there could be a character or voice-over commentator asserting a property or relation; but then the film would be using its sound track in much the same way as fiction uses assertive syntax. It is not cinematic description but merely description by literary assertion transferred to film. Filmmakers and critics traditionally show disdain for verbal commentary because it explicates what, they feel, should be implicated visually” [emphasis added] (128).
This disdain for voiceover assumes that film is capable of a purely visual language, but do not the very use of voiceover and its continued pervasiveness imply that which cannot be “implicated visually”? If adaptation is a matter of translation, of swapping signifiers for an essential signified (as Dudley Andrew seems to posit in “The Well-Worn Muse: Adaptation in Film History and Theory”), then total and complete translation is impossible. There will always be things lost in translation, so to speak – units in one language that don’t have equivalents in another, elements in life and literature that refuse to be depicted on a visual plane. It seems to me that voiceovers are to film what schadenfreude, laissez-faire, and other terms are to the English language: non-native elements absorbed by a different system of meaning and signification in order to compensate for a lack or handicap. Voiceovers are, for lack of a better word, the embodied acknowledgement of film’s perhaps insurmountable boundaries, the literary complementing the cinematic at its limits. Is this a reason to dismiss voiceovers as “sloppy writing”? In fact, if voiceovers are literary, then they can’t be “sloppy”; blocks of prose can be profound in a way that dialogue cannot, spouting off solitary revelations. Why do we vilify the use of voiceover?
I don’t think we should write voiceovers off completely, if at all. The entire documentary genre would cease to be what it is without voiceover while fictional films gain a layer of meaning through narration. Even classical films noir, the oft parodied perpetrators of voiceovers that describe what’s already depicted, use voiceover to convey the narrator’s personality and the tone of the scene – hard-boiled detective takes us through the urban underground with a jaded grit that originates in and reflects his surroundings. Robert De Niro’s voiceover in Taxi Driver conveys Travis Bickle’s paranoia, and in so doing, connects otherwise unrelated events – out of the voiceover, a plot is born. Similarly, Nicolas Cage’s voiceover in Adaptation. conveys his neurotic energy, his defining character trait, without which the film would not have unfolded as it did. Even in a film like Beginners (2010), a film generically unrelated to the previous three, Ewan McGregor’s voiceover is written and deployed in such a way that it’s as if, at times, the literary surmounts the cinematic, the images of the film serving to complement the voiceover that carries and propels most of the action; yet the film also features shots, scenes, sequences without narration, pure depictions that words would oversimplify and that contribute to an understanding of the characters – literary and cinematic working in tandem. In fact, aside from pinpointing the character with whom the audience should identify, such first-person voiceovers betray thoughts that are otherwise inaccessible (Bickle, private eyes, and even McGregor’s character to a certain extent share stoic facades) and that color the rest of the film; without it, a certain degree of meaning is lost (hypothesis: first-person voiceovers are a cinematic rendering of subjectivity and psychological distress; it’s no wonder then that their appearance coincides with the rise of film noirs and the end of WWII – voiceover as postmodern device). Indeed, the question to ask is: could a film featuring voiceover exist without it? If the filmmakers could conjure a visual equivalent that would eliminate the voiceover, would it be the same film? Would it necessarily be better? The answers should be taken on a case-by-case basis, of course, but if even one film can answer “No” to any of those questions, then voiceover is justified.
Of course, one could make the argument that films should evolve past the voiceover and aspire to a purely visual plane, as Chatman asserts, but is that even possible, even worth pursuing? It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to imagine a purely visual medium – that is, film without the literary, image without sound or text. Even if silent film were held as the ultimate visual accomplishment, I would argue that such an assessment would be false because silent films were always accompanied by music and intertitles (those for melodramas were particularly literary; that is, sometimes long and not fit for dialogue) – film has never been an entirely visual medium. So, if the objection against voiceover is that it is not cinematic, i.e. visual, then why does it continue to exist? Are filmmakers really just “sloppy” writers, or are we overlooking something deeper?