I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Movies are the ultimate show versus tell method of storytelling, yet telling is a useful and sometimes crucial tool in a filmmaker’s bag of tricks. Narration is how they achieve this method of explaining a story and its characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. It takes a distinctive, strong voice and well-penned dialogue in order to pull this off. Below are 10 examples of great narrators in movies.
Caution: spoilers ahead!
Million Dollar Baby: Morgan Freeman's Narration
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Morgan Freeman as Eddie Dupris
Million Dollar Baby plot summary
An up-and-coming fighter persuades a reluctant trainer to take her on and make her a champion boxer.
Dupris is a third party with a front row seat to the events that unfold in the story, and he can relate to both boxer and trainer. He celebrates their triumphs and mourns their failures over their welcome shoulders.
Dupris is also an insightful character. He has a close attachment to both Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and Maggie (Hilary Swank) that allows him to study and analyze them and then report what he notices to the audience.
He has felt the drive and determination that Maggie possesses, and he also knows Frankie to be overprotective of his fighters, including himself at one time. Frankie still carries regret over the abrupt ending to Dupris' career, and Eddie appreciates this. As a result, the two look after each other and newcomer Maggie into their group.
These differing viewpoints should make their relationships dysfunctional, but the narration shows how these characters fit together in a unique way to become an unstoppable force in the boxing world. But history repeats itself, and Dupris goes through the misery of losing Maggie while watching Frankie suffer through the task that she has assigned him of helping her to end her life.
This isn’t your classic Morgan Freeman voice over. He is playing a broken character himself, both physically and emotionally, and he suffers from the tragedy that unfolds as deeply as Maggie and Frankie.
You can hear the gruff weariness in his voice, still stinging from the tragic end to Frankie and Maggie’s story. Then, it is revealed that Eddie is not telling this story to the audience but Frankie’s estranged daughter in one last attempt to tie up a loose end of Frankie’s back story, giving the narration more purpose than a disembodied voice speaking into the void.
The Lovely Bones: A Helpless Narrator
The Lovely Bones (2009)
Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon
The Lovely Bones plot summary
A teenage girl tells the story of her murder and the after effects it has on the people around her as she watches them from heaven.
Ronan is tasked with telling a story from a perspective that cannot be experienced or researched: that of the dead. Her voice takes on a calm and ethereal tone without sounding like a dramatic, haunted lost soul. As Susie, she delves into particular images and feelings which are so potently age appropriate for her character, yet are poignant and sophisticated in a sense of understanding that the dead are perceived to possess in the afterlife.
Susie soaks in her experiences in this limbo state, unable to fully leave her world behind. In life, she was a self-absorbed teenager, obsessed with photography and her crush on an older boy at school. In death, she is still recording moments like snapshots, but she is completely absorbed in the well being of others including her crush, Ray, his paranormal-sensitive new friend, Ruth, her broken parents, younger siblings, and even her murderer.
The narration helps Susie to understand that her presence is holding everyone back. As she drifts further away from them, the narration becomes more sporadic until it comes full circle, echoing her opening lines before wishing the audience “a long and happy life."
Labor Day (2013)
Tobey Maguire as adult Henry
Labor Day plot summary
A mother and son spend their Labor Day weekend harboring an escaped prisoner and grow to love him as a husband and father figure.
Though Maguire shares no screen time with the characters he’s speaking of (he’s playing an older version of Henry telling the story), the movie is reliant on his ability to tell this story as if he had lived through its events several years prior. The montages throughout blend clarifying narration with simple, calm imagery, first showing the underlying sadness that dictates the mundane daily routine of Henry and his mother and Adele: monthly shopping trips, Henry’s attempts to act as a surrogate husband to his mother, dance lessons.
Then later, the montages highlight the productive tasks that Frank, the prisoner who stays with them, carries out: cooking, repairing an outside wall, changing the oil in the car, and replacing the furnace filter to name a few. These montages benefit from Henry’s voice over, indicating a shift in tone and purpose. It builds on the characters as we discover Frank’s true nature, the source of Adele’s melancholy attitude, and Henry’s coming of age.
Adult Henry speaks of the confusion of the actions that take place behind closed doors, questioning how he fits into the new life that Adele and Frank are planning. Then, when his confusion leads to disaster for their plans, despite how his ignorance makes for an acceptable excuse for how his actions lead to Frank’s recapture, there is a nagging guilt that shapes his thoughts of the events that take place after that weekend comes to an end.
While the skills that Frank has taught him shape the outcome of his life for the better, it comes at the price of his mother’s broken heart. Henry never outwardly assigns blame to anyone, though they are apparent in his tone. This illustrates his need to be strong for his mother and move forward so that he doesn’t fall into the trance-like state in which Adele resides.
The description of his actions in going to live with his father through high school and then returning to his mother right before college show how conflicted he is about what he should do to repair the relationships that were both made and broken that weekend. When Frank finally steps back into the picture, it provides the relief that Henry needs to end his story on a happy note, freeing him from his guilt and his need to put his mother’s well-being above his own.
Vada - the Unreliable Narrator
My Girl (1991)
Anna Chlumsky as Vada Sultenfuss
My Girl plot summary
A girl comes of age during the summer of 1972, experiencing first love, dealing with his father’s new girlfriend, coming to terms with her mother's death, and enduring an unexpected tragedy.
What's interesting about this narration is that the movie's hero, Vada, breaks the fourth wall in the opening scene, sharing an unlikely story about the time she swallowed the chicken bone that's currently stuck in her throat. Her character is so desperate for someone to listen to her that she actually breaks the boundaries of her world to make this connection, even if it's just to share an unconvincing lie.
Vada is not a perky, bubbly girl, nor is she a pessimistic downer. She’s obsessed with death but only because she lives in a funeral home and is trying to make sense of it.
Vada has a passion for writing but doesn’t know how to express her feelings. These feelings come out in her narration as she comments on her experiences through anecdotes, feelings, and concerns to the audience that she won’t, or can’t, disclose to others.
She’s witty, sarcastic, and appropriately reactive to each scene as it unfolds. It’s one of the greatest child voice overs ever put on screen, and it’s all thanks to Chlumsky’s delivery and sophisticated script that doesn’t dumb down her character but fleshes it out to make her more relatable to her all ages audience.
Vada says nothing to the audience that they can't see on the screen. Instead, she helps the audience to understand the characters better, including herself, by telling stories and relaying facts, some true and some made up.
She never looks at the camera again after that first scene, and she always speaks in the present tense, as uncertain about what lies ahead of her as the audience. By the end of the movie, she comes to realize this uncertainty is just a part of growing up.
Wonderboys Movie Clip
Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp
Wonderboys plot summary
A Pittsburgh writer spends a February weekend dealing with his wife's sudden abandonment, the unexpected pregnancy of his boss/mistress, mentoring a troubled but promising creative writing student, the advances of his live-in student boarder, and dodging his New York publisher house guest who is eagerly looking to get his hands on the follow up to his first and only critically acclaimed novel.
Grady retells the events of his defining weekend the only way he can, in the sweeping prose of a great writer. It’s an almost diary-style delivery, having no one but the audience to confide in, with a cast of characters too caught up in their own hardships to be able to help him make sense of his own.
Grady isn’t self-pitying. He’s analytical, funny, and full of regret. He has stalled in the ability to make choices, and he spends most of the movie avoiding all choices. It’s not until he starts making choices that he is able to tie up the many loose ends that unravel throughout Word Fest Weekend. The entertainment comes from watching the mess that he makes before he takes the initiative to clean it up.
At the end, the audience discovers that this narration is really just a new piece of writing that Grady is working on. This time, it's a non-fiction piece. Grady has accepted the reality of his world and the importance of making decisions in order to move forward with his own story.
Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff
Juno plot summary
A teenage girl humorously deals with the otherwise serious situation of being pregnant and putting her baby up for adoption.
Teen pregnancy is usually reserved for a Lifetime movie of the week, but putting a comical twist on it in the form of a hyperactive, quirky, wise cracking teen can make the subject bearable and the character lovable. Juno is not asking for it when a one night stand between she and her best friend, Paulie, results in an unwanted pregnancy. While it devastates her, her personality remains intact as she moves forward with the difficult tasks of deciding whether or not to have the baby, tell her parents the news, and deal with the gestation process while bonding with the soon-to-be adoptive parents while receiving ridicule from both classmates and strangers.
Juno’s remarks to the audience are as witty and off the wall as her interactions with the other characters onscreen. Some of her best lines in the movie are delivered in her voice over and help to paint her as the hero of her own story. She doesn’t glorify her ability to deal with her unwanted pregnancy, but she also doesn’t let it define her.
Most of her narration bookends the story, being utilized as a way to introduce the cast of characters to the audience and to reflect on how getting pregnant helped her to realize her love for Paulie and her need to act on those impulses. She realizes how frustrating it can be when you don’t come to terms with your feelings and the consequences it can have on your life.
Juno doesn’t pop in throughout the story to comment on obvious situations when there is nothing to clarify, as some narrators do. Instead, it is used as a comedic technique to throw in some jokes in scenes that otherwise would have been silent and either mundane or dramatic.
One such scene is explaining her mutual hatred of Paulie's mom while squeezing past her to get to Paulie’s room. The narration shows that Juno’s quirkiness is the real deal, not just a mask that she hides behind due to a lack of confidence or a need to stand out in the crowd, and she doesn't lose this humor just because she's about to become a teen mother.
Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Carey Mulligan as Kathy
Never Let Me Go plot summary
In an alternate historical past, a woman reflects on the events leading to the soon-to-be end of her short life from boarding school to the present and the love triangle that she is stuck in through most of it.
Mulligan’s voice has a somber tone throughout the film which is understandable given her circumstance. She finds out at an early age that she and the others at her school are clones raised to donate their vital organs to their “original” counterparts once they reach full maturity. This realization alone can lead to a melancholy state of mind as no one should know the time and circumstances of their own fate.
She is very accepting of her station, something that is hard to understand until you realize that being raised with this mindset would make a person accepting of their position in life. Her voice dips in and out of the beginning and end of each period of her life, creating three separate chapters featuring the school where she grew up, the cottages where they await donation, and the care centers where she works until it is time for her to begin her donations.
Kathy’s final voice over monologue is the most powerful in the film, full not so much of regret but a realization that life never gives anyone enough time, and we don’t realize how quickly we reach the end. It’s a final acceptance of her destiny and a desire to shed the lonely life that she has endured. To hear what is going on in her head during the final frames of the film intensifies the already dramatic score and heartbreaking image of Kathy standing alone, overlooking the now bare grounds of her old school, leaving the audience with a moral and meaning of what events have unfolded over the course of the movie.
The Help (2011)
The Help (2011)
Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark
The Help plot summary
A young white woman just out of college co-writes a book filled with stories about African American maids working in Jackson, MS in the 1960’s with the help of the maids that she knows from her hometown, exposing the prejudice, mistreatment, and hardships that they endure, much to the disdain of her peers.
It’s odd that Aibileen is the only narrator in the movie, despite this being an ensemble story. Her tone never changes from the beginning to the end of the book, despite her newfound success.
Abileen's life is a struggle, dealing with racism, poverty, and the tragedy of losing her son, and the narration is an outlet for acknowledging these hardships. That’s not to say that she never enjoys a moment onscreen. She relishes her relationship with friend and fellow maid, Minny, and her newfound friendship and collaboration with Skeeter, who listens and writes down their stories with no fear or prejudice.
Despite this comfort zone, Aibileen also has a hard time coping when she rebels against her place in the world, despite this rebellion's importance in bettering not only her life but those of her fellow maids. She is made stronger by her story and knows that the fight isn’t over, even in the final scene.
Each battle drains her, and her narrator gives her very real, very sympathetic, and, for some, even guilty thoughts to leave with the audience. Aibileen’s story doesn’t carry the movie, but her narration shows how their success with the book have made a difference in her attitude, her situation, and eventually the history of our country.
Guy Pearce as Leonard
Memento plot summary
A man suffering from short term memory loss tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s rape and murder and the trauma that caused the brain damage that he now endures.
This movie works backwards to tell Leonard’s story, enlightening the audiences a little at a time and keeping them as confused as their disabled hero. Narration is crucial in fitting the pieces of the story together and giving the audience insight into the tips, tricks, and information that Leonard uses to get from moment to moment.
Leonard repeats himself and speaks in fragmented sentences, moving from one subject to another but with the sole motivation of catching his wife’s killer. Since he resets every few minutes, the audience is constantly moving backwards with him.
Then, as he starts to move forward again, the scene sets itself back another few minutes like a storytelling back stitch. As details, truths, and lies come out, it builds tension until the loop of events is completed, only to find that he is unknowingly back to the beginning of his search.
Leonard’s low, sad voice speeds and slows with the confusion and anxiety present in each scene. Sometimes he’s talking to other characters. Sometimes he’s being chased. Other times he’s sitting alone in his hotel room, recounting the story of an old client who suffers from his same condition, who actually turns out to be him unknowingly telling his own story, remembering it as someone else.
Leonard’s narration is very expository, but this is appropriate for the unique way that this story is told and the nature of his memory issues. He is able to break the rules of a narrator only because his condition allows and even demands it.
Big Fish (2003)
Billy Crudup as William Bloom
Ewan McGregor as young Edward Bloom
Albert Finney as old Edward Bloom
Helena Bonham Carter as adult Jenny
Big Fish plot summary
A father and son struggle to mend their tumultuous relationship before the father’s death as the father refuses to tell his life story in any format other than his famous tall tales, much to the disdain of his son.
Several movies utilize multiple narrators, but Big Fish uses them in a very important way. Multiple viewpoints show that there is no one version of any story. Perspective always plays a role, but when you're telling the story in the same fantastical way, you can get at the truth behind each tale.
We are introduced to Edward Bloom’s colorful and inventive storytelling in the opening credits, sucking us in as it does the other characters in the story save for one, his son Will. The narration melts into Will’s unimpressed and frustrated viewpoint as he tells his side of their relationship, questioning the motives of his father’s tall takes and the inability to know him for real with this method of storytelling.
As both old and young Edward Bloom recount the “greatest hits” of his famous life stories throughout the film, the audience is mesmerized, yet they remain sympathetic to his son’s desire to hear the true versions of events for once. When it is Jenny’s turn to tell Will the story that Edward made up about his relationship with her, she tells it only as Edward Bloom would, with all of the embellishments and fantasy that he would have wanted. Will oddly doesn’t protest, having become an expert in deciphering the purpose of the story, even if he can’t excavate the facts from the fiction.
In the end, Will comes to terms with these stories when he is forced to make up his father’s last great adventure in his final moments. He sees that his father’s inventiveness was not meant to mask but rather embellish what otherwise would have been a bland tale.
Rather than describe the dreary early morning in the hospital room as his dad drifts away, he instead makes up a daring escape followed by an action-packed getaway in his father’s old Dodge Charger, and a final curtain call with his cast of characters before becoming the “big fish” that he always was. Will’s final narration to the audience confirms his coming to terms with his father’s unique vision of his life and completes his own character’s arc before the credits roll.
Buy a copy of Memento here!
Who are your favorite movie narrators? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 26, 2017:
Analyzing the narrator and narration is not a common work, but you show how necessary and effective it can be in the appreciation of the movie. Good job!