Voice over in American Beauty

American Beauty. Movie that I truly love, for a great screenplay, acting performances, cinematography, directing, music or maybe because I used to fantasize about a girl the same way Lester does about Angela. Anyway, there are many reasons and something tells me, that this movie will be covered the most often on this blog.

This article was inspired by the absolutely brilliant Film Crit Hulk, specifically by his article Screenwriting 101 Vol. 2 of 2  (point 43. Voice Over). Just read it, it’s amazing!

Always show, don’t tell

Screenwriters have a rule which says: “Always show, don’t tell.” And there is a very good reason for that (“to show” is always more engaging and cinematic than “to tell”).

Well, the problem with V.O. (voice over) is that it always tells and never shows. So you (screenwriter) have to be very careful where to use it and if at all. If it is used wrongly, it feels like a cheap shortcut to explain something to the audience. And most of the time, the audience doesn’t buy it, because it feels wrong, like something that doesn’t belong to the movie at all.

On the other hand, there are movies, where the V.O. is used in a very cinematic way. By that I mean: The V.O. is well thought-out and incorporated already in the screenplay, rather than added later in the editing process to fix some problem.

Also, it is important to realize, that with V.O., you are telling the story from this person’s perspective. And that’s exactly the case in American Beauty.

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

The movie opens with Lester’s V.O. and it also ends this way (with his voice over). Therefore, the story is told through his perspective.

Lester’s V.O.

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old and in less than a year, I’ll be dead. 

[…]

And I can’t feel anything but gratitude, for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.

The V.O. starts, when the camera is flying high above the suburb, where Lester lives and next time (last time), when we’ll hear Lester’s V.O. is when he dies (and when camera is flying again high above the suburb, but this time, the camera is flying out – backwards).

The point here is that we can hear the V.O. only when he is dead. In other words, the use of Lester’s V.O. is consistent and well thought-out, and it makes perfect sense.

Actually, there is a lot of things in American Beauty that make perfect sense and I’m really looking forward to write and comment (Hi Andrew! 🙂 ) about them in the future!

P.S. In the original screenplay written by Alan Ball, the V.O. begins after Lester wakes up, goes to a window and peers through it. The words are also slightly different. The same is true for the V.O. at the end, it also differs slightly (it starts when Lester is shot, but then we were supposed to see Lester flying above clouds like Superman).

(The original screenplay differs actually A LOT from the final movie.)


Links

Screenwriting 101 Vol. 2 of 2 (point 43. Voice Over)

Mendes’ influence on American Beauty

Analysis of “American Beauty” – Part 1 of Several

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