This week sees the release of The Wildest Dream, about climber George Mallory's 1924 attempt to conquer Everest. The documentary uses a combination of original sources, reconstructed and modern climbing footage and lots of fabulous actors reading from old letters (including Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Dancy and a last performance from the late Natasha Richardson), all tied together with the sonorous, peat-smoked tones of Liam Neeson*. And it got me thinking about the importance of finding the right narrator for such things.
First of all and most obviously, you have to have someone with a decent set of pipes. That means you should be thinking about those Shakespearean bods with The Voice (the likes of McKellen, Stewart, Kingsley) although it's acceptable to go for more distinctive but equally distinguished others (like Hurt or indeed Neeson). If you're American, the answer is always Morgan Freeman. It's the Shawshank effect. That's why there's a Family Guy sketch where Morgan Freeman stars in a film called The Narrator and just talks for two hours (who wouldn't go see that?). Only if he is busy are you constitutionally allowed to look elsewhere (seriously, it's right there in the 23rd Amendment), and consider the likes of Gene Hackman (especially if Civil War-related), Elliot Gould or the guy from The Wonder Years.
Secondly, it's nice if the narrator either cares or pretends to. The obvious example of where this doesn't happen comes in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford has claimed that he delivered a deliberately laconic voice over in the hopes that they wouldn't use it.
But you also have to have a sense of authority about you, which is why you only hear actors under 40 narrate documentaries if they're aimed at teens. Leonardo DiCaprio had a fair stab at it in the sprawling and unfocused The 11th Hour, but it rarely happens. This is also the reason why relatively few women get to narrate films or TV with serious subjects: men really aren't comfortable with women in positions of authority. However, exceptions to this, like Helen Mirren or Judi Dench, are thankfully growing.
But the ideal, for me, is someone with a great voice and actual, honest-to-god knowledge. Consider, for a moment, Planet Earth - or indeed any natural history programme narrated by David Attenborough. As far as I am concerned, there just are no other nature documentaries. If David Attenborough isn't telling me about it, it probably doesn't matter / didn't happen / is wrong. Contrast the little segment on Emperor penguins in Planet Earth, narrated by Attenborough, with March of the Penguins, narrated by the ever-dulcet tones of Freeman. The former is short, but thorough. The latter is sappy in the extreme. After all, the film's endless anthropomorphication of the birds leads us to believe that Mummy Penguin loves Daddy Penguin, and both love Baby Penguin very much, and that's why they go through such incredible trials. But, er, the adults only mate for a single year and never see their kids again once safely hatched. So it's less about love and more about survival - and Morgan Freeman lets the film get away with it. Attenborough would never permit such fluffiness. And it's that that you want in a good narrator: a sense of authority that goes beyond having a nice voice and an inoffensive accent and goes all the way to knowledge. In the same way that Freeman would probably be far more demanding were he narrating a film in which he also starred, giving him strong views on the characters involved and the story, Attenborough can be more demanding in nature documentaries cause he knows this stuff.
It doesn't matter in every such case, of course; not every documentary or feature subject requires that its narrator be expert. It's just nice when that happens, and a result devoutly to be wished. So lovely as Neeson is as a narrator, part of me would maybe have preferred Sir Ranulph Fiennes or [insert the name of another mountaineer you know here, cause I don't] just for that reason. Still, they probably wouldn't have had the wicked brogue, so maybe it's as well.
But who do you want narrating your films? Who's got your audio vote? Or are you anti-narrator on principle?
*Given that he's from Ballymena, he may not have grown up exclusively on peat smoke, we'll admit. But how else to describe it?
raugustus Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 14:27
Hugh Ross - perfect as the narrator for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
jc_overactor@hotmail Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 14:56
Alec Baldwin- abosultely poetic in the The Royal Tenebaums !
pogoman23 Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 15:07
alan ford - lock stock and two smoking barrels sam elliot- the big lebowski
Faers Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 15:20
I was going to say Sam Ellliott as The Stranger. Despite the fact he only really narrates the beginning - you have to love that voice. Maybe I'm biased because it's my favourite film.
Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects is great. It leads you the other way, adding to the twist at the end. In that film, the audience is Chazz Palminteri.
njormann Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 17:20
David Attenborough - planet earth
julianlanc Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 17:31
Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Scorsese tried to follow it in Casino by giving narrating duties jointly to Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, but for me they just didn't work anything like as well as Liotta.
dahughesy Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 17:54
Sam elliot as the stranger. Definitely. Just all round perfect. The voice, the delivery, the mind wandering.
oscar1965 Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 18:15
David McCullough narrating Ken Burns The Civil War, could you get a better voice to listen to. My wife enjoyed the series even though she wasn't interested in the subject matter simply because of listening to his voice
Cobobrob Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 19:23
Robert Downey Jr. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is excellent
jorvik Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 19:27
Good article empire, for me it follows such:-
Wildlife doc = always attenborough Space doc = Always john Hurt Moving Drama = Always morgan
Sam Elliot is an excellent choice always, but i am surprised there has been no mention of Sir anthony Hopkins, he has narrated superbly in many films.
CaleGiles Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 19:57
Two words: Stephen Fry. The man has a perfect voice as well as being The Guru Of All Knowledge.
jmsmith57 Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 21:33
Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
7eke Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 22:05
i'm just wondering what you'd consider an offensive accent
Esmereldet Posted on Thursday September 23, 2010, 23:38
Martin Shaw. No need for anyone else. Ever. Heard him read the Silmarillion? Nough said :)
Rosie9amgee Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 04:31
Cate Blanchette - for an impeccable narration of the Fellowship prologue - pitch perfect start to the trilogy!
And Jeremy Irons many voiceovers in Brideshead Revisited - one of the most sumptuous parts of the whole series. I drown in honey everytime I watch it, just listening to his voice.
Rosie9amgee Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 04:32
Re Esmereldet - I'd second that on the strength of his Hobbit. Another great voice.
Ethanial Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 08:51
Until the Arrested Development movie brings Ron Howard's voice to the cinema screen, it'll have to be Sam Elliot.
tejo Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 08:55
Of course that would be Edward Norton as “THE NARRATOR”(!) in Fight Club!
Lila Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 08:58
Jim Dale in Pushing Daisies. Perfect for that fairy tale-esque ambience.
thesearenotmyshorts Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 09:51
The Narrator in Fight Club. His name is The Narrator and his narration encapsulates his character's insanity perfectly.
thesearenotmyshorts Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 09:53
The Narrator in Fight Club. Perfectly encapsulated insanity.
thesearenotmyshorts Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 09:58
Lester Burnham in American Beauty. You can TELL his life is boring.
Freeman Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 10:00
Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.
jjdubya Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 10:25
Worst one by a long distance comes in Million Dollar Hotel from Jeremy Davies... irritating, no authority about it and generally pointless. While I know most people will disagree completely, Justin Timberlake's VO in Southland Tales is actually pretty cool.
filmburner30 Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 11:03
Tilda Swinton in Deep Water the doc about yactsman Donald Crowhusrt
Werner Herzog his voice makes his documentaries
Leslie Nilesen in the Naked Gun films
Lee Richardson in Network i always remember the Properly pissed line
Sir David Attenborough is the daddy
waltham1979 Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 11:35
Christian Bale as Pat Bateman hands down...!!
Beckymonster Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 11:49
Movies - Mark Strong does a good narration in 'RocknRolla'. Cillian Murphy's opening narration for 'Sunshine' is rather easy on the ears. Sir Ian's narration of 'Stardust' is also worth a mention as is Sir Patrick's 'mutation' speech at the beginning of the first two X-Men films
TV - Sir David Attenborough is beyond compare. Must say that Professor Brian Cox is damn good too. Has a happy knack of enthusiasm and knowledge which I find endearing - it does help that I am a bit of a space nerd too.
Mopictures Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 12:12
I agree with a lot of what people have already said. I thee yay Freeman, I thee yay Elliot and I say thee yay Spacey. The dude who narrates "Magnolia" - Comforting and yet very odd.
Steve Martin in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" - Both a send up of Detective Narration and a legitimate example in it's own right.
Sarah Conner in "T2" - Without even seeing her we already know how tough and slightly mental she's got in the time since the first film. Classic sad/badass!
dave666 Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 12:40
The Nanny's Fran Drescher would make a perfect narrator
ice_white_tiger Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 14:09
Why haven't more people said John Hurt?! He's an ultimate narrator! He can make it dark, charming, funny, a bedtime story...
To name but a few: Perfume, Dogville, The Tigger Movie, The Storyteller... not to mention the countless of adverts he's done...
Seriously, if god exists, and he has a voice, it's John Hurt's.
jkoopa Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 14:23
billy bob thornton in the man who wasn't there. lovely low voice.
J.L.Wroot Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 15:13
Have to agree with the Stephen Fry suggestion - he was great as the voice of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
SiegePerilous Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 15:22
The Coen's do a good line in southern drawls, The Stranger, Ed Tom Bell and my favourite H.I. McDunnough
butcher666 Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 16:42
The Stranger, Red and Sir David of Attenboroughshire.
No one else comes close.
K Grandaddy Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 16:56
Having seen the other guys, the only choice would be Ice T.
lunettaec Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 17:24
but of course the best is Gary Sinise (:
Director Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 17:28
Bruce Campbell in full on Elvis mode for Bubba Ho Tep.
will2921988 Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 17:55
David Attenborough, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee (a voice bursting with knowledge and power) For someone younger though, I really liked Gemma Arterton's narration at the opening of the Clash of the Titans remake, by far the best thing about the film.
fenbunny Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 19:07
Jude Law for Lemony Snicket--perfect!
Sleepy Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 19:40
How could you forget Richard Dreyfuss and Stand By Me!
"I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? "
rossmunro13 Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 20:50
My favourite narrator is from 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', to give it it's full title.
j8mie Posted on Friday September 24, 2010, 21:36
For me it's got to be Will Lyman who did the voice over for Little Children.
Followed closely by Morgan Freeman on Shawshank (I won't embarrass him by mentioning that God awful film War of the Worlds). Best to focus on the positives ;)
Klopek86 Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 05:17
Ray Liotta in GoodFellas
The well dressed man Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 09:26
A lot of good suggestions here, especially Hugh Ross for The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but for my money...Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. His low, gravel-tone fits perfectly with that character and the movie as a whole. Amazing!
fantastic mr ethan Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 11:06
Not that Morgan Freeman isnt the bomb at narrating but I have to admit that I am kinda partcial to Hugh Grant's naration in love actually but we all know who the best narator is - Patrick Stewart
raymond brogan Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 11:23
What about Patrick Hordern's narration in Barry Lyndon? Arguably one of the best voices ever, and without his witty and charming delivery would have made that a much lesser film. Richard Burton was also an amazing narrator and has been forgotten in the article. Alec Guinness was wonderful also. Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry, Ian McKellan and Morgan Freeman are the best voices working today and woukd make any narration gripping.
morpheusman Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 13:47
David Attenborough should narrate movie trailers. It would be EPIC!!
sephiroth7 Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 15:11
Robert Downey Jr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by a long way.
zerskine Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 15:38
Aaron Eckhart makes a character, who I would happily punch in the face 364 days* a year, likeable and almost endeering in Thank You for Smoking. So I'm gonna go with him.
* I'm only violent towards my own family on Christmas Day.
hatebox Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 15:53
Rick Deckard. Just kidding.
Red Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 16:42
Hands down, John Hurt or Morgan Freeman
simonburgess Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 17:51
Funny you should mention Planet Earth. When they showed it on US TV, David Attebourough was replaced by Sigourney Weaver.
Zephyon Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 18:09
Edward Norton is just great in Fight Club!
general_potatoface Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 19:59
David Attenborough obviously.
I agree with filmburner on Werner Herzog.
The guy who narrates "Who Do You Think You Are?" for the BBC?
suleiman Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 21:34
David Wenham as Dilios in 300
SultanAmeer Posted on Saturday September 25, 2010, 23:34
If Freeman isn't available then David Wenham is a good choice also Brad Pitt he did good in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
bendiwolf Posted on Sunday September 26, 2010, 11:44
Has nobody thought of Sean Connery? While it's true that he hasn't done that many narrations, what could be better than that famous, manly, scottish brogue ???
lochkray Posted on Sunday September 26, 2010, 14:07
Nobody mentioned James Earl Jones? C'mon. When watching the news network in the states, all I have to hear him say is "This is C.N.N." and I feel both comforted and subservient to his authority. I want to stand up and say, "Yes sir, you are correct! This IS C.N.N.! Thank you for letting me watch." When they lady tells me that I'm watching B.B.C. World News, I get more of a "Yeah, well, I guess that could be true" feeling. (Note: this is not a comment on the quality of news reporting from either network source. Just the logo narration.)
stormbruel Posted on Sunday September 26, 2010, 19:14
For me the best is GARY SINISE! He is a great actor!
tom712 Posted on Sunday September 26, 2010, 21:37
Have to agree about David Attenborough and Brian Cox for their sheer enthusiasm and knowledge. For fellow 'space nerds' I also recommend Sean Pertwee in Journey To The Edge Of The Universe (try youtube for a clip). While he doesn't have the same knowledge (as far as I'm aware) his voice seems to fit perfectly with the subject matter. Alec Baldwin's a not bad replacement for the US version but I think, as with Planet Earth, us Brits got the better end of the deal.
thehedgehogfromhell Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 01:40
Helen O'Hara. I know you love using footnotes. You've certainly made them a distinctive feature of your writing, and I don't begrudge you for that.
However, footnotes DO NOT WORK on the internet. On the printed page, the reader's eyes can scan down to the bottom to read them and then flip straight back up to where they left the main text.
On the internet, you either have to ignore them and read them out of sequence at the bottom of the article, or scroll down to read them (catching glimpses of the rest of the text) and then scroll back up to try to find your place again.
I enjoy your pieces, but the footnotes are aggravating.
Leeorami 2.0 Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 09:22
Wasn't it Marv from Home Alone who narrated the Wonder Years?
kardanadam Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 10:44
edward norton - fight club
DanQuinnDQ Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 13:34
Norton was great in Fight Club.
I also liked David Cross in TVs Oliver Beene. Also Daniel Craig in the World War 1 documentaries I watched in history lessons at school. His voice was way too cool. Authoritive, but also quite sardonic at times.
Paddy Kieran Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 14:19
Fully Sedated Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 15:20
John Hurt it's been him ever since the "the story teller" series
filmburner30 Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 15:55
Ricky Jay on narration duties on Magnolia
JJJ777 Posted on Monday September 27, 2010, 20:05
Surprised no one has mentioned William Holden in Sunset Boulevard he does the jaded Hollywood voice perfectly
macbuff Posted on Tuesday September 28, 2010, 03:25
Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity.
TomBowler Posted on Tuesday September 28, 2010, 04:24
Matt Damon in The Informant.
Edward Norton in Fight Club
Ray Liotta in GoodFellas
Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums
Kevin Spacey in American Beauty
Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass
Andre Dussollier in Amelie
Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge!
Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski
Ellen Paige in Juno
Peter Falk in The Princess Bride
Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver
Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
And Michael Cera in Youth in Revolt.
Glad I got that off my chest
mskittybangbang Posted on Tuesday September 28, 2010, 10:16
Alastair Simm, as he did in Green for Danger, even though his character doesn't get going for a while, it is a classy, weary, loveable voice and smacks of authority.... However, when W. Somerset Maugham introduced the stories in his collection of Trilogy, Quartet etc it came across more as Tales of the Unexpected than anything that made me care about the characters. The stories could have stood alone and the v/o wasn't needed.
mighty mick Posted on Tuesday September 28, 2010, 12:48
Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. A narrator who forgets a pivotal slice of information and needs to quickly rewind the movie to correct said mistake is a stroke of genius.
Megalo-who? Posted on Tuesday September 28, 2010, 16:37
A recent example was Mad Men's sole use of narration from Jon Hamm a couple of weeks back. Very poignant.
Lord Midas Posted on Wednesday September 29, 2010, 16:44
Dave Lewinski's Kick Ass narration :)
mikecruz Posted on Wednesday September 29, 2010, 22:15
Orson Welles - Magnificent Ambersons (or) Steve Martin - The Jerk
Jolierae Posted on Thursday September 30, 2010, 11:55
Christopher Walken. His timing is an art form. He hasn't even been mentioned, how is that possible?!
pottynoodles Posted on Wednesday October 6, 2010, 17:34
the lad who does "Who do you think you are" - excellent post General Potato Face. He's amazing. Otherwise, David Attenborough is King. Tilda Swinton did a lesser nature doc narration and her tones were simultaneously comforting and authoritative. Didn't George Sanders do narration on All About Eve? I seem to recall some withering drawl adding to my enjoyment of that film alright.
Middenway Posted on Sunday October 10, 2010, 23:40
Emma Thompson was perfect in Stranger than Fiction.
Middenway Posted on Sunday October 10, 2010, 23:42
Oh and Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Brilliant.
Fan 19 Posted on Wednesday October 13, 2010, 04:16
As a general narrator, personally, it is David McCullough. He encapsulates America's grandfather storyteller. It's more than his memorable work in Ken Burns documentaries (e.g. Civil War) and in Seabiscuit, but I've been fortunate to listen to him personally on multiple occasions.
In terms of narrators as characters, previously unmentioned: Colin Farrell-In Bruges John Cusack-High Fidelity Uma Thurman-Kill Bill Vol. I & II "wiggle your big toe" Daniel Craig-LayerCake Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen & Bruce Willis-Sin City Natalie Portman-V for Vendetta Guy Pearce-Memento
Untapped narrator potential: Bill Murray
moviemaniac-7 Posted on Tuesday November 2, 2010, 10:35
Fight Club has the best narration, closely followed by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Both because they break every f***ing rule about narrating.