Robert McKee (Brian Cox), Adaptation
Anyone who has ever taken an introduction to film writing class (raises hand) knows that it is a Cardinal Sin to use voice-over work. You are supposed to, say it with me now, show, not tell. However, we know that this generic, broad rule is not true. It's not that you're never allowed to use voice-over work, it is that you're not allowed to use it as a crutch for your storytelling and character development. However, this archaic belief that you are never allowed to use voice-over means that it's rarely used in the visual medium. That means when it is used, it's seemingly always discussed. That's why it has become a discussion point for two of 2015's best (and new) show TV shows of the year- USA's Mr. Robot and Netflix's Narcos- both of which owe a debt of gratitude to The Godfather of voice-overs: Goodfellas.
Goodfellas is most certainly not the first film to use voice-over. Blade Runner used voice-over. A Clockwork Orange used voice-over. Most film noir films used voice-over. However, Goodfellas perfected and solidified the use of voice-over. The film follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and uses his narration to describe his ascent and fall from his mafioso life. The film starts off with Hill saying, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster" and uses Hill's perspective to tell this incredible story of his life in the mob. The use of voice-over is effective in multiple ways throughout the film. We get a clear vantage point for how this story is told, we're able to get a sense of how deep and connected this world is, and it's even used to heightened tension and advance plot. Director Martin Scorsese still gives you wonderful characters- Joe Pesci won his sole Academy Award for his work in the film- and gives you an interesting and engaging take on the mob genre, but also uses voice-over to coalesce the entire project and gel everything together.
There are a lot of things that make Goodfellas IMDB.com's 17th best movie of all time and rank it on AFI's top 100 list, but there should be no denying that Ray Liotta's voice over work is one of those reasons. Goodfellas' voice over just works, and because it was so effective, it helped inspire movies and TV shows for years and decades to come.
The first major influence of Goodfellas' voice-work work came four years after its release with Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank tells the story of two men's friendship, Red and Andy, over their 20 years spent in prison, and the story is told almost entirely through the voice over of Morgan Freeman's (Red) soulful tenor. While in the process of adapting Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Darabont struggled translating long sections of the written word into his visual masterpiece. Darabont seemingly said "eff it" and just started using King's own words as Red's voice over work.
Thanks to the anarchistic cliche against voice over work, Darabont freaked out at what he was doing. Then...well, let's have Darabont himself tell the story
So I started writing [Shawshank], and I got really freaked out halfway through. I suddenly thought, oh my God, I’m breaking the rule. I’m going to be damned to movie hell. I’m telling instead of showing. I’m relying too much on it. As if a sign from God, I turned on cable that night and it’s the premiere of Goodfellas. And I thought, this is a really great movie and it has a lot of voice-over. It had been about a year since I had seen it in the theaters, and I sat and watched it again. And I thought ‘I’m a piker, man, I’m a stingy little bastard when it comes to narration compared to these guys’ [Nicholas Pilleggi and Martin Scorcese]. There are no rules, and as soon as you think there are, you’re fucked. Because it all comes from the heart, from the instinct, and if it feels right, it probably is right. So, my talisman in Ohio was my tape of Goodfellas. I took it with me, and on weekends – my weekend was Sunday – I’d sit there totally blown-out and depressed, and I’d pop in Goodfellas and get inspired again.
The Shawshank Redemption didn't do very well in 1994; however it became the highest grossing video rental of 1995 and eventually #1 on IMDB.com's Top 250 list.
Goodfellas pioneered extensive voice over work and The Shawshank Redemption helped solidify its status within the zeitgeist. No longer were movies tethered down to having characters give long monologues of basic exposition and hand-holding to the audience. Now writers and directors could use voice over narration and get away with it.
One of those writers/directors that took full advantage of this voice over freedom is Sam Esmail. Esmail is the creator of the breakout USA hit Mr. Robot and obviously a huge fan of 90's films. Esmail didn't need to outright tell us of his 90's film fandom for us to know much movies like Fight Club, Se7en, and Pulp Fiction influenced his own work, but Esmail also succeeds thanks to Goodfellas and Shawshank and their use of voice-over.
Like Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption, we don't mind the voice over because its use within the show helps deepen the audiences involvement with it. In fact, we prefer the voice over because Elliot is actually talking to the voices in his head, and those voices just happens to be us.
What makes the narration even better is that the voice over happens in real time within the confines of the show. Remi Malek recently told Vulture.com that he has a PA's voice in ear read the VO lines on the page within the scene so Malek's facial expressions can match the final voice over. When Elliot is staring at a character and speaking in voice-over, Elliot is actually standing there in silence speaking to himself from the perspective of that other character.
Despite the creative and cultural success of Mr. Robot, the biggest influence Goodfellas has had in 2015 is on the Netflix program Narcos. Narcos is basically the Pablo Escobar version of Goodfellas. The story is told through the voice over of Boyd Holbrook's Steve Murphy- the DEA agent attempting to take down Escobar- but it's basically Murphy's narration and explanation of the rise of one of the most notorious gangsters in history. I feel like Narcos shouldn't work as it's the umpteenth iteration of a Pablo Escobar story, but I enjoyed it a lot precisely because it reminded me so much of Goodfellas.
The use of narration in Narcos is even used to the same effect as the use of narration in Goodfellas. There are a lot of characters and a lot of wold building that Narcos needed to do in a short amount of time, and the best and most efficient way to do this was though the use of narration. Further, like Goodfellas, the narration doesn't hinder the quality of the characters in any way. Wagner Moura does an incredible job channeling Pablo Escobar that sometimes you don't even care about the plot per se, you just care what Pablo is going to do next. The narration is wonderful and as an audience member I appreciated it, but the reason I stayed was because of the characters and the story.
Frankly, that's the way voice-over should be used. Both Narcos and Mr. Robot have voice over and use it to tell or advance their own story. They never use it to diminish character building. Voice over loses its effectiveness when it starts to take the place of characters themselves. I don't mind the fact that Frank Underwood breaks the Fourth Wall and speaks to the audience in House of Cards, but what I do mind is that the voice over is outright telling us Underwood's motivations for specific actions.
Ultimately, Mr. Robot and Narcos are great and entertaining stories and are worth the watch if you haven't seen either of them. The fact that both stories have such extensive voice over narration doesn't necessarily intrinsically mean anything one particularly thing, but that is mainly because the plot, characters, and story still exist without the narration. The voice overs and the narration supplement those things to create a wildly entertaining and engaging shows and both Narcos and Mr. Robot have Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption to thank for that. There was a time where voice overs were taboo within screenwriting, but as we've seen here today, that should no longer be the case.
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