10 Great Stories Told Within Movies

By  · Published on February 16th, 2012

by David Christopher Bell

While you’ll see that I’m giving myself a lot of leeway in the following list (one of the ten isn’t even technically a film), the general idea is that the list that follows singles out films that go beyond simple narration, but rather identify themselves as stories being told either in the universe or even at times outside of the universe. Narration to a film is like a frame to a painting, and while all frames hold their painting in place, there are some that do it with a little more style than others. These are some of my favorites.

10. The Royal Tenenbaums

This is as literal as a movie gets without ever actually showing someone telling the story to anyone else. The film is like a presentation of a book form of itself, making it technically the retelling of a story. It has a prologue, chapters, and an epilogue all visually laid out for the audience. Each character is not only presented with flat-out exposition upon their introduction in the story, but also introduced ahead of time in a single montage that simply sums up their name, who plays them, and gives a visual representation of their character.

Clearly the line is a bit blurred with this one, but I wanted to talk about it mainly for the reason.

This seems to be a regular thing for Wes Anderson films – his films exist in this weird semi-reality where through editing and sometimes characters the story is presented to us in this odd, made up formality – almost like a fancy three course meal that consists only of candy.

Alec Baldwin is the chocolate.

9. Forrest Gump

It feels like nowadays poor Forrest wouldn’t even stand a chance to get a fellow bench partner’s attention, let alone be able to keep their interest with a story. No – now we have something called smart phones and they are designed to keep the Forrest Gumps of the world safely muffled in the background. Don’t get me wrong, 9 times out of 10 that’s probably a good thing, but then there is that one time where the slow guy at the bus stop happens to be worth more than the lives of you and everyone you love – such as the story of Gump.

Of course what makes the entire story he tells so endearing is that along with his personal story, it’s the story of the United States – but through his eyes. That’s really the key to the whole film, following this one very simple, very kind man through every important historical event of the last several decades. He participates in it but almost as an outsider due to his lack of full understanding of the specifics. Because of Gump’s disinterest in the bad, we get a telling of history without any cynicism in the mix – a child’s perspective.

Over the course of the story you never really suspect that this Jenny, his number one priority throughout the entire film, is the reason he is sitting at that bus stop. Where he sits is actually the threshold to this love story’s third act, and it’s only in the last few moments of the story does that become apparent. Once it does – the story seamlessly transitions out of Gump’s narration and continues into the present, and for the first time we get to watch it all play out at the same time our hero does.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

8. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

This…probably doesn’t actually count. I’m not sure…

I’m not even sure how to classify the narration of this film, because it’s done by Robert Downey Jr. from the perspective of his character, but is also self-aware that the movie is well, a movie. It’s as if while all the events and characters and action and such exist in the universe of the film, the narration exists beyond the fourth wall. He’s not telling us a “story” – no, he’s telling us a “movie.” And while doing so he even comments on how well he is doing it – sometimes even commenting on the quality and believability of the plot itself. At one he even loses it when a character that you think is dead makes a cheesy recovery, talking about how studios executives are too scared to kill likable characters off and that they might as well bring everyone back – which for a moment the film actually does per his request.

It’s actually kind of the way you’d expect Robert Downey Jr. to narrate any film – he skips around, goes off on tangents, he even messes up a part and curses himself before getting back to it. In the end they do finally break that wall and show him telling the story – and yes, it’s just him sitting and looking right at us, recognizing us as people watching a movie.

7. Big Fish

Okay, it’s fifty/fifty with this one, as half the movie is a told story and the other half of the film exists in the world that the story is told in, with an eye to how the stories effect the characters.

This is not so much about the narration itself, but more about the personality of who’s telling the story. In this case it’s a man with a talent for exaggeration. This is, of course, kind of the point of the whole film, as it follows the struggle the man’s son has dealing with a father who never quite tells the truth about anything. It actually reminds me of an article on The Onion about the woman who regrets dating someone spontaneous. It’s all fun in games at first, but then if you have to deal with him regularly suddenly it’s a real pain in the ass. That’s the deal with this character – the stories are wonderful until you actually want to get a true account of something, then it’s incredibly frustrating.

Of course as the audience we could care less how much he exaggerates – which is why it’s so fun to watch the entire retelling of a man’s life done in grand form. It’s fitting as the storyteller is doing so at the very last days of his life – leading up to his son finally understanding the value of embellishment. The payoff is when the son starts actually investigating the man’s life on his own and finds that his exaggerated life story is actually surprisingly closer to reality than one would expect.

6. The Singing Detective

So, if I really wanted to, I could make this fit the film genre by choosing the Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson movie remake of the original BBC miniseries, but frankly I just can’t do that. Whatever – I’m not excluding this, so you’ll just have to sit there and take it.

The story being told in this case is rather unique – it’s your classic serial detective story, but the narrative is that of a man telling the story back to himself – or rather, thinking it all up. This is because this man, a novelist, happens to be in the hospital bedridden and covered in sores due to a skin condition. Refusing any painkillers, we not only follow his story in the hospital but also the detective narrative that runs in his own agony-diluted brain. Along with this story we also get to follow his memories as a child dealing with a mother who has an affair with his father and leaves him.

Things get especially fun when, due to our narrator losing his mind, the stories of his childhood and the singing detective begins to slowly melt into each other as well as coming into the waking world of the hospital. Suddenly you can’t tell what’s real and what’s just paranoid delusions as characters begin to scheme behind his back in the real world as they would in on of his novels. This is one of those things you kind of have to watch a few times – not only because the actual detective story, like any good detective story, is hard to follow – but also because the entire series is just one big beautiful mess.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m taking certain liberties in what I’m defining as a told story within the film, but I really wanted to get an interesting list for this. The nature of Hunter S. Thompson’s style of writing – his Gonzo Journalism – is that the journalist themselves are a part of the story, a story published without editing and written in the moment. Ironically, the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was edited five times by Thompson, and also had the majority of it written in California after the fact. However in the movie, the story, we see Thompson’s Raoul Duke actually piecing together the book on his shitty little typewriter from time to time during the film.

So, in a way, the narration of this is a reverse, because we are watching the story as it is becoming one, that means that the voiceover heard is the story being told, but to a work of fiction as opposed to from one. It’s a film about a man writing a book that the film is based on. And if you think that isn’t confusing enough, get ready for number four…

4. Adaptation

This is going to be tough, so I’m going to start with the basic plot, which is about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who has a twin brother, an aspiring mindless action screenwriter named Donald. Charlie is hired to write an adaptation of a book called “The Orchid Thief” and suffers from writer’s block in the process – so what does he do? He writes a screenplay about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who has a twin brother, an aspiring mindless action screenwriter named Donald. Charlie is hired to write an adaptation of a book called “The Orchid Thief” and suffers from writer’s block in the process – so what does he do? He writes a screenplay about a…

Get it? It’s a freaking metaplot or something, there’s even a point in the film where he is dictating about him dictating about him dictating the plot on a tape recorder. The point is that the actual writer of this film, Charlie Kaufman, really did get writer’s block trying to adapt this book. Aside from his twin, who doesn’t really exist, this story is a true telling of how the film got written. We’re watching the fictional movie that came from the characters in the same fictional movie. Ow.

It’s get’s better – as the biggest complaint about this film was that for some reason the third act goes completely ape shit, turning into this badly written action story involving drugs and alligators. It makes no sense until you look at the actual writing credits for this film, which credit both the real Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald – the terrible action suspense screenwriter. Yeah – guess who wrote the third act.

3. The Usual Suspects

Considering that an early release of the DVD of this film actually spoiled the ending in the freaking main menu, I am guessing this is supposed to be one of those movies where everyone knows how it ends and all that. Probably – but in case you’re the one person reading this who doesn’t know it rest assured that I ain’t no rat.

Pretty much all of the story is told by one individual in a single interrogation between an FBI agent and the only uninjured survivor of a huge boat explosion that resulted in a drug deal gone horrible wrong. The survivor, Roger “Verbal” Kint – played flawlessly by Kevin Spacey – goes on to tell the agent a story of five men entangled with a criminal legend by the name of Keyser Soze. Soze is notorious to the point of lore, demonized by story after story of his ruthlessness.

It’s really Kevin Spacey’s performance throughout that carries the weight of the kind of evil they are dealing with, as he tells the story of Soze going so far as killing his own family so that they don’t serve as bargaining chips for his enemies. Rock hard that guy.

Obviously – if you’ve seen this film you know exactly what makes this story particularly memorable.

2. Doctor Zhivago

If you ever feel like watching an epic war and love story with Alec Guinness in it that doesn’t involve giant laser-shooting mechanical orbs, then this is the one for you. This is one of those movies that you could never get away with today – over three hours long and it isn’t about magic orc-smelling swords or whatever that jewelry film was about. No, Zhivago is an epic that is actually surrounding a love story between two people. Sure, there’s also war and shit, but the whole point of the movie is telling the story about how one man and one woman came to be, and what resulted from it. Specifically, a daughter.

That’s what the telling of the story is about, for it opens with Guinness, who is the half brother of the titular doctor (played by Omar Sharif), finding a young lady who he believes to be his niece. He sits her down and begins to explain the story of her father’s life to her, and how he became a great poet and lover to her mother Lara, the subject of his most revered poetry. What follows can only be described as an epic tale that spans two wars, one revolution, and a whole lot of weird love triangles. From it all, supposedly this girl who sits listening to the story unfold.

The matter of whether this girl is Zhivago’s daughter is left somewhat ambiguous – well…technically. If you watch the film, you’ll understand.

1. The Princess Bride

This is kind of a given. I say that about all my number ones, but it’s because it’s usually true. The Princess Bride has pretty much everything a person needs, a love story, pirate sword fights, giant rats, Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal – it’s so perfect, you know? And the whole thing, the framework, is told as a story from a grandfather to his grandson. A bedtime story – ah jeez, that’s cute.

What makes that particularly clever is that The Princess Bride is actually a book in real life – so this film adaptation simply is the act of someone reading that book, and a boy’s imagination of what’s happening. It took a fantasy book and somehow grounded it in the real world simply by recognizing the book as itself. Obviously what makes the whole telling great are the moments where the grandfather – played by Peter Falk – does his best to skip over some of the mushier scenes, or halts the story to assure the boy during the more scary scenes. It’s wonderful pacing in that it’s quite abrupt, and almost a nice reminder throughout that, while we know it’s supposed to be a story, we can’t help but to get emotionally involved in the characters. Hell – we’re watching a movie of a guy telling a story to someone and it’s still nerve racking to watch Westley fight off Rodents Of Unusual Size or climb the Cliffs of Insanity. It’s just a great story made even greater by how it was told.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.