Do theorists of cinema use the concept of "narrator" in the sense of the hypothetical person presenting the movie, and if yes who are some of the famous ones and what are the works in which they do it?


I am referring to the concept as is used in this remark by one of our members in this post. (See comments to the answer.)

Sure, Caligari is another good example (and also an early example of an unreliable narrator)

It looks like the concept we know from literary criticism. (In a novel, for instance, we can always distinguish a narrator from the character or the author. He is the hypothetical person that "narrated" all the sentences making up the novel. If the narrator is also a character, as in e.g. David Copperfield, that is a second job for him. The narrator will presumably say, "Yes everything happened exactly as I said," if asked, while the author will say, "What do you mean? It's just a novel.")

Anyway, there may be some (perhaps limited) scope for using a hypothetical presenter to analyze a film in much the same way a narrator is used for novels etc.

Please note the narrator of a movie in our sense would not be the same thing as a silent film orator.

  • 1
    Not really sure about the second part of the question. Seems a bit too broad/listy/recomendationy.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Oct 29, 2015 at 22:10
  • @NapoleonWilson I actually suspect that a "hypothetical presenter" as an analytic device would not easily carry over from literature to cinema. I.e. I suspect the answer to the first question may be no. If I am to be told yes, I want a couple of top names so I know where to look. It's meant to sound like, "Who developed calculus?" To which you may get two names.
    – Catomic
    Oct 30, 2015 at 0:30
  • 1
    As always, Fight Club.
    – lonstar
    Jan 28, 2016 at 1:49

1 Answer 1


I don't know if they can be called "theorists of cinema". To me, these two people master the craft (of writing at least).

John Truby calls this person "storyteller". It can be one of the characters or not. In "The Anatomy of Story", he says:

"The storyteller is one of the most misused of all techniques, because most writers don't know the implications of the storyteller or its true value.

The vast majority of popular stories in movies, novels and plays don't use a recognizable storyteller. They are linear stories told by an omniscient storyteller. Someone is telling the story, but the audience doesn't know who and doesn't care. These stories are almost always fast, with a strong, single desire line and a big plot.

A storyteller is someone who recounts a character's actions, either in the first person -- talking about himself -- or in the third person -- talking about someone else. Using a recognizable storyteller allows you greater complexity and subtlety. Stated simply, a storyteller lets you present the actions of the hero along with commentary on those actions.


A storyteller also lets the audience hear the voice of the character who is doing the telling. People bandy about the term "voice" all the time, as if it were some golden key to great storytelling. When we talk about letting the audience hear the character's voice, we are really putting the audience in the character's mind, right now as he speaks. It is a mind expressed in the most precise and unique way possible, which is what the character talks about and how he says it. Being in the character's mind implies that this is a real person, with prejudices, blind spots, and lies, even when he isn't aware of them himself. This character may or may not be trying to tell the truth to the audience, but whatever truth comes out will be highly subjective. This is not the word of God or an omniscient narrator."

Robert McKee calls him "narrator", or "voice-over". Robert McKee prefers to show instead of telling, and to cut what can be cut, following the "less is more" principle.

McKee says in "Story":

"Voice-over narration is yet another way to divulge exposition. Like the Flashback, it's done well or ill. The test of narration is this: Ask yourself, "If I were to strip the voice-over out of my screenplay, would the story still be well told?" If the answer is yes ... keep it in. Generally, the principle "Less is more" applies: the more economical the technique, the more impact it has. Therefore, anything that can be cut should be cut. There are, however, exceptions. If narration can be removed and the story still stands on its feet well told, then you've probably used narration for the only good reason -- as counterpoint.

Counterpoint narration is Woody Allen's great gift. If we were to cut the voice-over from HANNA AND HER SISTERS or HUSBANDS AND WIVES his stories would still be lucid and effective. But why would we? His narration offers wit, ironies, and insights that can't be done any other way. Voice-over to add nonnarrative counterpoint can be delightful.

You can find them here: Robert McKee and John Truby


  • Cinema Paradiso,
  • The Shawshank Redemption,
  • Heart of Darkness (with three narrators),
  • It's a Wonderful Life,
  • The Great Gatsby,
  • The Usual Suspects.

I hope to have understood your question well.

  • 1
    Thanks. It's very useful stuff. However, Truby seems focused on novels and to assume that the concept developed for it would apply to movies and plays. McKee's voice-over narration is not the hypothetical presenter in our sense. I am wondering if anyone looked into the concept's application specifically to cinema. Thanks again!
    – Catomic
    Oct 30, 2015 at 0:58

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