Studies in Voice-Over Narration: “American Beauty”

Part 4 of a five-part series on movies where voice-over narration works.

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with — hopefully — guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the fourth of five movies using voice-over narration: American Beauty, the 1999 film written by Alan Ball. The story begins with Lester Burnham’s V.O.:

LESTER (V.O.)
My name is Lester Burnham. This is
my neighborhood. This is my street.
This... is my life. I'm forty-two
years old. In less than a year,
I'll be dead.

And wraps up his introductory V.O. with this:

LESTER (V.O.)
Both my wife and daughter think I'm
this gigantic loser, and... they're
right. I have lost something. I'm not
exactly sure what it is, but I know
I didn't always feel this...
sedated. But you know what? It's
never too late to get it back.

The opening voice-over narrative establishes a big, fat mystery: Lester is going to die. We can’t help but wonder how and why that will occur, that question looming over us with every new scene we read. This is an example of reader foreknowledge whereby key information is conveyed before the events actually happen. It’s like setting a hook, assuming that foreknowledge is compelling enough. And in this case — a man talking about his inevitable death — death is always compelling.

At the end of the movie, Lester breaks out into an extended voice-over narration, basically a bookend to what was established up front. Here is the movie clip just after Lester has been shot:

This sequence uses both voice-over narration and flashbacks to create a riveting set of scenes. We know Lester is going to die, we’ve anticipated that since the beginning. Moments before this sequence, we saw the fulfillment of that ‘prophecy.’ Yet what we hear in Lester’s V.O. at the end of the movie makes us feel something.

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This deeply flawed Protagonist figure has gone through a significant metamorphosis. The convergence of the awareness of what is truly important in his life — daughter, wife — with his untimely death makes the ending that much more bittersweet. He was right there, on the cusp of getting his shit together and living an authentic life… then he’s dead, leaving us with these parting words:

LESTER (V.O.)
You have no idea what I'm talking
about, but don't worry...

Here is a tip we can take away from this particular use of voice-over narration: If our story can be transformed by providing reader foreknowledge, giving them a lens through which to interpret all the subsequent events in the narrative, that is a possibility we should explore.

By the way, another example of this approach: The classic 1950 film Sunset Blvd. which begins with a narrator — a dead screenwriting floating in a pool.

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Tomorrow: “A Christmas Story”.

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