By Paige Anderson and Emily De Vogele
Narrators are responsible for bringing audiobooks to life. Their voices ring out in our ears, transporting us to a world of escapism. So, what happens when their voice is recognisable? When we know them as someone else and can picture them as the actors who are on our screens instead of a voice inside our head? Does having a TV or film actor ruin the novelty of audiobooks, or enhance it?
One could argue that their acting skills come in handy when narrating an audiobook. Ben Barnes’ reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde comes to mind. Barnes portrayed Dorian Gray in a 2009 adaptation of the novel, and, while discourse and opinions around the quality of that adaptation are still happening, you cannot deny the cadence and richness Barnes' vocal performance brings to the book itself. By selecting an actor familiar to younger audiences from his performances in The Chronicles of Narnia, Marvel’s The Punisher and more recently Netflix’s adaptation of Shadow and Bone, his name adds interest to a classic piece of literature that isn’t always on the top of everyone’s to-read list.
The same can be said for Jake Gyllenhaal’s reading of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gyllenhaal’s instantly recognisable voice adds to the already adored story of Jay Gatsby and his American Dream. Fans of both the actor and the novel are drawn to this work, curious to hear how this piece of literature will be performed.
Take the example of The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Ann Dowd brought the sinister Aunt Lydia to life in the TV adaption of the iconic book and also narrates part of the audiobook. One might refer back to the idea that the skill of the actor has a deep impact on whether their narration has a positive or a negative effect on the audiobook. In the case of The Testaments, there have been countless reviews of the audiobook describing Dowd’s narration as “terrifying," and the general consensus seems to be that her voice enhances the experience of listening to the story.
Dowd’s ability to become Aunt Lydia in the TV series is truly brilliant, and she does this again in the audiobook, crediting Atwood’s writing as the reason she is able to do this. When questioned how she was able to breathe life into Aunt Lydia so convincingly, she answered that Atwood’s “brilliance allows an actor or a reader to fall straight into the world.” This then suggests that the weight falls more on the authors’ shoulders, rather than the actor narrating, to create a story that causes listeners to enter that frame of mind which lets them truly immerse themselves in what they are listening to.
However, what happens when a recognisable voice hinders the novel and storytelling? A few examples come to mind, primarily the audiobook narration of Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, famed for Hamilton: The Musical, it becomes almost impossible to separate his voice from this renowned performance when listening to the audiobook. Of course, as with all reviews, this is entirely subjective. I found it hard to listen to the audiobook when all I could hear in my head was Alexander Hamilton. Half of me was almost expecting a song break at some point during the narration. With such a distinctive voice and the ever-present Hamilton videos on the internet, it’s hard to picture Miranda as anyone else. Despite all this, it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. I still finished the audiobook, but a part of me felt that I missed out on some of the magical escapism that should come with audiobooks because of the associations I have with Miranda and his voice.
There are countless examples of actors narrating audiobooks where their talent and voice adds to the audiobook experience. As with most books and readers, it comes down to preference and one’s own subjectivity. Some readers might despise it all together and avoid any celebrity narration, while some exclusively look out for a reading by their favourite actor. Actors do have a certain knowledge of performance and storytelling that most don’t, making it clear why some of them are picked for narration or offer up their voices themselves. Either way, it seems to be a trend that is only growing over time. Love or loathe celebrity narrations, they’re here and it looks like they’re here to stay.