Daniel Handler—that’s Lemony Snicket to all of you!—never wanted to write books for children. In fact, his A Series of Unfortunate Events (the story of three orphaned children and the conspirators who hound them for their fortune) was born out of a desire to subvert the “overwhelmingly moralistic” tone he found so characteristic of many of his least favorite children’s books.
True to form, the first of this series—the aptly titled The Bad Beginning—candidly explores themes of loss, desperation and despair.
Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire have captivated hearts and minds across the globe through 13 books and one film, a 2004 adaptation which condensed the first three books into a two-hour running time.
But the film was a financial failure, and the producers were forced to abandon their plans for a franchise.
Netflix’s streaming service has done it again, delivering the first eight episodes of a prospective 3-season saga that should do the books—now seen as classics of absurdist literature—justice.
WHY IT FAILED
For the series to succeed, however, the filmmakers had to examine precisely why the prior adaptation failed. Sure, it started with a gentle disclaimer informing the audience that they were about to witness the first in a series of unfortunate events, each showcasing increasingly darker themes.
And true, as the three children barreled their way from one unfortunate situation to another, the film’s fast pace accentuated these often incredible (and painful) situations with a certain likability and resourcefulness the young actors brought to their roles.
Ultimately, the production, while excellent on a technical level, could not rise above the scrutiny it received in the wake of the decision to tear a quarter of the pages from the first three books (and a select few unexpounded pages from later installments), hash them together into a screenplay, and attempt to create a cohesive film.
In short: while visually arresting, the film lacked narrative force.
These flaws were not lost on the Baudelaire fanbase and the film underperformed. For its part, it is unlikely a franchise would have survived in a world seized by Harry Potter mania. Talk of a series died down– its demise seemed, as things often are, eventual.
WHY IT WORKS
Admittedly, Patrick Warburton’s wry Lemony Snicket takes some getting used to, but he soon finds his place in an environment which takes many of its cues from the moody hue of some of the films of Wes Anderson—think The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom—which lean toward the highly theatrical, almost in the style of a play, or as if taken from a book (which the Baudelaires in fact are).
Anderson also tends to favor primary colors; his characters are often identifiable by their very distinct appearance; Margot Tenenbaum always wears a clip in her hair, while Violet Baudelaire is at her most thoughtful when she ties her hair with a ribbon.
The world of both productions are also rife with stark characterizations which showcase social oddities: If the Tenenbaums are stunted in a world which lauded them with its treasures before they could feasibly cope, then the Baudelaire children are gifted with grit and reason in a world few, if any, of the adults they come across truly deserve.
The writing is sharp and the cast of guest stars memorable. The children (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith) are all relative unknowns; if they seem stiff, even awkward, it’s because they must play the “straight men” in a world which patronizes them, when not outright abusing them.
The CGI on display is weaker than standard Hollywood fare, but lends this fairytale a sense of cartoon surrealism more in line with the slightly anachronistic alternate universes, marked by Victorian and steampunk sensibilities, of early Tim Burton films than the trappings of needless overproduction his later films would succumb to.
The visual surrealism and retro-tech gadgets swing in the direction of a darker Dr. Seuss and the visual style lends much of its charm to the work of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams– nor is it a twist of fate that director Barry Sonnenfeld gave us the darkly comic Addams Family and Addams Family Values.
In truth, the gloominess of this production is more of a companion to Edward Scissorhands than the sleeker, more easily defined Corpse Bride, and while still familiar to the vision of the 2004 film, embraces the despair far tighter than Jim Carrey’s sometimes erratic performance. This is a world we've seen before, yet this show owns it in ways its predecessor simply could not.
WHY IT MATTERS
Viewers must issue congratulations to the production’s makeup department for transforming Neil Patrick Harris’s Count Olaf into a slew of absurd and unflattering roles. The best of these, The Miserable Mill’s Shirley T. Sinoit-Pecer (that’s “receptionist” spelled backwards), is matched toe for toe in manic sensuality by Catherine O’Hara’s Dr. Georgina Orwell, whose endorsement of hypnosis and vigorous denunciation of free will ring with literary significance, to anyone who’s read 1984, and painfully familiar real world significance to every person whose President is not Trump, yet is spellbound to the rants, rambles, and untruths of his Twitter.
It is unfortunate (ha!) that Harris’s Count Olaf does not live in a vaccum: We, as viewers, are forced to measure him against Jim Carrey simply because Carrey’s performance exists, and there’s no way of knowing how Carrey would have grown into the role had the originally intended franchise materialized.
It’s also probable Carrey would have balked at the idea of making sequels—even under contractual obligation—as he has rather infamously stated that he found the experience of making Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls miserable enough to turn him off of participating in sequels altogether (In recent years, Carrey has appeared to backtrack on his “no sequels” rule, as Kick Ass 2 demonstrates, even if his character wasn't present in the first film).
Other performers demonstrate a keen understanding of the source material’s satirical leanings, as well as its unabashed tendency to veer into meta-fiction. For example, Joan Cusack’s Justice Strauss is deliciously kooky, Aasif Mandvi’s Uncle Monty rides a frenetic wave from the moment he turns up in The Reptile Room to take the children to view Zombies in the Snow, the film within the film (with secrets all its own). Alfre Woodard’s Aunt Josephine steals scenes in The Wide Window with deliciously anxious gusto (and when we have to accept that she will leave us, it’s with enormous regret).
However, not once do we forget (thanks in large part to Warburton’s narration as Snicket) that we are hearing about these happenings from a “writer” whose own life contains another work of fiction within itself.
The series, much like its source material, seeks interaction from the viewer while Snicket intentionally exposes himself as not only the author, but a figure connected to the story’s more conspiratorial events. He does what he can to differentiate fact from fiction while telling the tale of the Baudelaires to the best of his ability. He does all of this while remaining engagingly educational in his use of literary devices and recurring terms and ideas, most notably when taking his regular asides to define—and redefine—language.
“The children exchanged glances,” writes Snicket, after the children are confronted by their guardian. “They had hoped their visit would be taken in confidence, a phrase which here means ‘kept a secret between Mr. Poe and themselves and not blabbed to Count Olaf.’”
Even the winks and nods at the fact that this has been rebooted in the precarious content bubble of streaming services, the reeducation on the terms figuratively and literally (an important distinction as we continue blurring the actual definition of "literally" through ironic usage), and, most importantly, the recurring introduction—almost acting as a character itself—of dramatic irony.
While A Series of Unfortunate Events might come across as jarring (even anticlimactic) to those newly introduced to its dark charms, it’s important to note that these first four books do not comprise the meat of the series, however faithful the screen treatment. (What few detours the script does take, we find, serve as visual clues to the overarching conspiracy which the Baudelaires themselves do not delve into until later installments.)
Still, what flaws the series does have (an at times sluggish pace among them), it’s a comfort to know that the trials and tribulations of the Baudelaires and the linguistic whimsy of the source material are so thoughtfully intact. With Daniel Handler himself at the helm of the writing team, we’re sure to have more unfortunate events to look forward to.
Funnily enough, Handler has gone on record stating that when he started writing children’s literature, he “had no bearing in children’s literature.”
“I hadn't read a book for children since I was a youngster,” he continues in a recent interview with NPR. “And—but I remembered this overwhelmingly moralistic tone in all of my least favorite books, so I thought it might be good to sort of mock that from the outset and warn children away from a story instead of the sort of typical treacly beginning which is, you know, this is a very charming story, and you're just going to love the adorable hero.”
In the world according to the Baudelaires, there is always a threat, as Handler puts it, of something “dastardly” happening. Does one have to necessarily “love” these children to revisit them next season?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But we can fall in love with where they end up going, a signal that even the most subversive tales have their hearts in the right place.[Feature Image Courtesy CGMagOnline]