“I looked at the vase,” she said, looking at the vase (voiceovers in adaptations)

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Dorothy McQuaid
Showrunner for Pycera/Social Media for BWP
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Voiceovers in TV and movies are, as Rebecca wrote in her Outlander post on Monday, a great way to transition a first-person story to the screen. I think they are especially relevant in books adapted to movie or TV because people who have read the books know more about the characters than people who only watch the movie or TV show. However, I think some adaptations pull this off better than others: some movies/shows use too many voiceovers, explaining the scenes when they’re already obvious, and some use too few, leaving viewers to wonder what the characters’ motivations are. In today’s post, I’d like to talk about the two ends of the spectrum.

This post will contain spoilers for the book and TV versions of Outlander and book and movie versions of The Hunger Games.

Spoiler-warning


The first end of the spectrum, the ‘”I looked at the vase,” she said, while looking at the vase’ end, is exemplified by the first few episodes of the Starz show, Outlander. We are in Claire’s head almost constantly through the first episodes, hearing her talk about things that are already evident onscreen, and reminding us of things that happened earlier in the episode.  I understand reminding viewers of previous episodes, especially on shows that are released episode-by-episode (as opposed to Netflix binge-watch style) but reminding us of something that happened 20 minutes ago? Really? How short do you think our attention spans are?! In later episodes, the voiceovers are less frequent, even leaving viewers to wonder (as Rebecca mentioned) why Claire chose Jamie over Frank. I would be interested to hear the writers, directors, and producers’ reasoning on what to narrate and what not to. Perhaps they thought that having a lot of voiceovers in the first few episodes would get viewers into Claire’s mindset and character, and be able to extrapolate her decisions and actions from there.

On the opposite end, the ‘why is she doing that, what is going on, explain yourself please’ end, we have The Hunger Games. The book explains Katniss’ motivations, reasoning, and logic. Every move is calculated, the variables considered, the emotions examined. The book shows her thought processes and conclusions. The movie shows her darting randomly through the woods.  This was apparently a strategic decision by Gary Ross who wanted to show Katniss’ thought processes cinematically rather than verbally. He said “You don’t know more than the character knows,” but to me, when watching The Hunger Games, a bit of voiceover would have told the viewer what Katniss knows, and why she makes the choices she makes. No, I don’t want to hear “I climbed the tree” as she climbs the tree, but I want to hear “I need water soon, or I will die” when she does something incredibly risky to get closer to a river. Sure, viewers can make some assumptions, but it’s difficult to understand a character’s motivation without a word from them.

This is where Claire and Katniss differ: Claire is (most of the time) around people she can talk to, particularly later in the show (when the voiceovers are less present.) Katniss, however, is alone most of the time she is in the Arena. Claire can tell Jamie, “I need some water,” and they can make decisions together about where to get it. Katniss, alone, plots internally and makes her own decisions, unbeknownst to the viewer. This is a primary reason why I feel voiceovers were overused in Outlander and underused in The Hunger Games. Humans are social creatures, if we’re not eavesdropping on a conversation, we want to eavesdrop on an inner monologue.

When it comes to voiceovers, there has to be a fair balance between the two extremes: let viewers observe and experience what’s going on, make their own observations about the characters, but explain when things are complicated or subtle.
Readers, what do you think? Are you okay with a character explaining their every move, would you prefer more be left to mystery, or something else?
Please Note: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.
Cover images copyright Lionsgate and Delacorte Books.
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