[Originally posted on this film dialogue blog]
So says screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) in the reflexive Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002). In many ways he’s right; by granting the audience direct access to a character’s thoughts, voice-over avoids the need to carefully craft dialogue and performances to convey the same information discreetly. As Mary Ann Doane (1980) notes, it gives the voice ‘the privileged mark of interiority, turning the body ‘inside-out.’ Calls for more subtle dialogue can be seen as a response to the use of voice-over, which as Michel Chion (2006) notes resurged in popularity in the 1990s.
In fact, voice-over is the single aspect of dialogue with a well-developed body of literature. Much has been written about distinctions between the disembodied voice of the documentary voice-over, that of a character-narrator, and a voice-over that only become attached to a visible body at a particular moment. In ‘The Silences of the Voices’, Pascal Bonitzer (1986) associates the embodied voice with subjectivity and a lack of knowledge, while the disembodied voice typically conveys universality and knowledge. In her gendered analysis of the voice, Kaja Silverman (1988) suggests this synchronization is more fully enforced with female characters – that there are ‘very high stakes’ involved in the alignment of the female voice with the female image. Considering the position of the audience, Silverman make a crucial distinction between their relationship with the internal-monologue voice-over, and the voice-over that consciously tells a story. While the latter is ‘undemocratic’, pulling rank on other characters and the viewer, the interior monologue ‘constitutes a form of auditory mastery’ by transforming the private into the public.
VO and Genre
The association of voice-over with particular genres or sub-genres – film noir; horror; adaptation – has encouraged discussion of its stylistic and narrative function. As Bonitzer points out, the marginal anxiety of the disembodied voice can be used for narrative effect. The Scream series cleverly plays on this by having a single, sinister telephone voice attached to the every killer (a voice-altering machine in the first conveniently explains the premise that is used in all four films).