Studies in voice-over narration: “The Shawshank Redemption”

Part 1 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 first of five movies using voice-over narration: The Shawshank Redemption. Here are some examples from the film:

This scene spotlights one obvious capability of voice-over narration, enabling the viewer to go ‘inside’ the experience of a character. Some may decry this as “flaccid, flabby writing” as Robert McKee’s character did in Adaptation. And it’s ironic in the context of this discussion that Red’s V.O. in this scene includes these comments [emphasis added]:

RED (V.O.)
I have no idea to this day what
them two Italian ladies were
singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t
want to know. Some things are best
left unsaid. I like to think they
were singin’ about something so
beautiful it can’t be expressed in
words,
and makes your heart ache
because of it.

And yet, here Red is, not leaving things unsaid and expressing his feelings in words [read: voiceover]:

RED (V.O.)
I tell you, those voices soared.
Higher and farther than anybody in
a gray place dares to dream. It was
like some beautiful bird flapped
into our drab little cage and made
these walls dissolve away…and for
the briefest of moments — every
last man at Shawshank felt free.

So here’s a question: Would this scene have worked if there had been no voiceover? Maybe the characters express those feelings in dialogue. But then would criminals be able to get in touch with and articulate these sentiments, let alone have the courage to convey them to other convicts? No, I think the only way to get at these deeply interior feelings — and critically Red’s feelings — is through V.O. narration.

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Here’s another example wherein Red narrates Andy’s escape from prison:

Again would this sequence work without the V.O.? Plus it serves as a microcosm for one big fat reason why — in my view — Shawshank had to use Red as a narrator: To handle the passage of time. All those time ellipses covering a 20 year span smoothed over by Red’s V.O.

Here’s a third example, one in which we hear Andy in V.O., the reading of Andy’s letter:

Would the scene have worked just reading Andy’s words? Or the usually awkward moment where the reader reads the words aloud, especially if they are by themselves? Moreover consider the power of Andy’s voice with these words:

ANDY (V.O.)
Remember, Red. Hope is a good
thing, maybe the best of things,
and no good thing ever dies. I will
be hoping that this letter finds
you, and finds you well. Your
friend. Andy.

Hope. It’s the most central theme of the story. It’s the flickering flame inside Red’s soul that Andy has been fanning to keep alive for two decades in prison. And like a baton, Red picks up the V.O. as he packs his suitcase and leaves the very same room Brooks and he had occupied:

RED (V.O.)
Get busy living or get busy dying.
That is goddamn right.

Brooks chose one path: dying. Red chooses another: living. Then the whole V.O. thread completed when Red arrives on the beach in Mexico and we hear his final words in the movie:

RED (V.O.)
I hope I can make it across the
border. I hope to see my friend
and shake his hand. I hope the
Pacific is as blue as it has been
in my dreams.
(beat)
I hope.

Again — hope. This is flabby writing? Flaccid writing? No, it’s artful writing. And I defy anyone to imagine how any of these scenes could have been crafted better without voice-over narration.

So what can we learn from the use of voice-over narration in The Shawshank Redemption? I will start it off with the obvious point I alluded to above: For some types of movies that involve multiple time jumps, this device can help create a smooth narrative flow. See also Forrest Gump.

What else? Please think about it and meet me in comments with your observations.

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