A Series of Unfortunate Events Season One: Netflix’s Very Good Try
If you are interested in reviews with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other review. In this, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.
Much like the series itself, the history of Lemony Snicket’s work is long and complicated. The series, stretching 13 novels, details the miserable misadventures of the Baudelaire orphans and their repeated escapes from the clutches of the villainous Count Olaf as he attempts to steal their parents’ fortune. The books are penned by Daniel Handler under the penname Lemony Snicket, who describes the tonal style of the series as “suburban gothic,” satirizing Victorian gothic literature. The books indeed deal with themes far darker than the average children’s series, including child abuse, murder, and suicide. While some criticized Snicket’s material as too intense for its intended audience, the series was a whopping success, collectively selling over 65 million copies and being translated into 41 different languages. In 2004, the series was adapted into a film by Paramount Pictures starring Jim Carrey. While the film broke even, it had a tepid reception from both the fan base and general movie going public.
And now here we are. It 2017, and on Friday the 13th of Janurary, Netflix has released their version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” starring Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith as the Baudelaire orphans and Neil Patrick Harris as the nefarious Count Olaf. While a large improvement over the 2004 film, the series remains a bit of a mixed bag. Apparently there is something about this material that requires it to be seriously altered before making its way to the screen, even when you have the original author writing your teleplay.
Let’s start with the good stuff, because there is certainly plenty here to be admired. First off all, the casting is on point. While the Baudelaire orphans detached performances are slightly off-putting in the first episode, they end up providing a wonderful foil for the crazy world they inhabit. This world is brimming with a wide array of highly entertaining, if highly incompetent, adults who are either out to protect or to murder our protagonists. Highlights of these colorful characters include K. Todd Freeman as the bumbling lawyer, Mr. Poe, and Aasif Mandvi as the charismatic herpetologist (a word which here means: someone who studies reptiles), Montgomery Montgomery. Count Olaf’s theatre troupe is also far better realized than the 2004 film, and every second they’re on screen steals the show. This brings us to the elephant in the room: Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Harris is… fine. He does a good job. He’s fine. However… he’s just not Count Olaf. Much in the same vein as Jim Carrey (who was a bit of a better fit, but not by much), he is simply too likable to play this character as he was portrayed in the books. Like the Baudelaires, you should dread every time he rears his ugly head in each new situation, when in fact here he’s the most likable character in the show. I suppose these castings are a reflection of the fact that it’s a kid’s show and portraying the character as-written may be a little too dark for the screen (remember, he straight-up murders people), and as I said, it’s fine. He’s perfectly serviceable and fun to watch, but he’s not Count Olaf. Surprisingly, the real standout performance of the show is Patrick Warburton as the sullen narrator, Lemony Snicket. Warburton, known largely for his broad comedic roles, actually gives a very restrained performance here. Much like the books, for the darkly comedic material to be pulled off correctly, it has to be taken completely seriously. It cannot be comedic to the characters or else it’s not dramatic or funny to us. Warburton does just this, gloomily striding, unnoticed by all but the audience, through the world he weaves with his words.
The visual interpretation of Snicket’s world is delightfully odd. Instead of going for the grandiose skew of the 2004 film, Netflix’s adaptation is a little more quirky. Most of the sets are built on a soundstage, combining cgi and stylized sets for an offputtingly heightened world. None of the locations look entirely real, but neither do they look entirely fake. The Baudelaires, dressed in colorful pastels, stand starkly against the gloomy greys and browns of their unfortunate reality. The directorial style, somewhat reminiscent of Wes Anderson, involves meticulously centered shots and carefully planned angles, yet again serving to heighten the world into an almost doll-like composition.
What’s interesting here is how the material is presented in contrast with the previous adaptation. As stated earlier, the 2004 film decided to tell the story the story with a little more bombast, using sweeping visuals and arcing scores to create a sense epicness and importance. Here in Netflix’s adaptation, the world surrounding the children is inherently much more docile, making a clear choice to appear less realistic. This may make it sounds like the film was being truer to the books’ gothic nature, but this isn’t necessarily the case. The film, while visually heavy and dark, was actually quite a silly piece of filmmaking. The script itself was lacking, and Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf was so ridiculous that he never felt like an actual threat (You could almost see the moments where “[Jim Improvises]” were written into the script). The darker themes of the book were present, but watered down, and some of the more poignant moments were removed entirely for a more audience-pleasing romp. Netflix’s series, however, doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Snicket’s work. The lengths they’ve taken to separate the visual world from reality allows them to play much more sinister without making it too intense for children, a line which the books always walked very carefully. In a book, an author has the freedom to write for the reader’s interpretation. The material is only as dark or heavy as the capacity of the reader’s imagination. When transferred to screen, however, very little is left to the imagination, and a child can become easily frightened when presented with something that they are unable to rationalize as they might while reading. In the end, Netflix’s gamble pays off, and they are able to give themselves freedom to tell the story as it is written rather than being forced to sand down the edges.
But here in lies the biggest problem with Netflix’s adaptation: they don’t tell the story as it is written. There’s a lot more. There’s a lot different. The largest complaint of the 2004 film was how much it diverged from the source material. In trying to cram the first three books into one movie, the film reorganized, restructured, and flat out changed major plot elements in order to make it cohesive much to the dismay of fans of the series. I was thrilled when I heard that Netflix was taking on the project, as the episodic nature of the books could be presented in a format where they would actually make sense without reformatting. What I didn’t take into account was how Netflix intends for you to watch the series: the binge.
Yes, it’s no secret that Netflix expects you to binge its shows. Entire seasons are released at once, every episode ends on a cliff hanger, and now there’s even a handy dandy button for skipping theme songs when they grow too repetitive on your 13th episode of the day. A Series of Unfortunate Events is monotonous, but that’s kind of the point. Every time the Baudelaires find a new home, and every time Count Olaf shows up in a new disguise that fools everyone but the children. The joke is that it keeps happening and that is allowed to keep happening. A Series of Unfortunate Events is exactly as its title suggests. However, Netflix has taken great length to keep you interested as you power through all eight episodes in one day. Events are scrambled to keep you guessing, plot points are changed to make them less repetitive, and elements from all the other books are brought in to justify each book having two episodes. In most cases they re-structuring isn’t bad per-se, it’s just comes off as cluttered.
The same cannot be said for what they add. By far the weirdest choice in the whole show is all of the plot elements that are included here that were not in the books whatsoever. And there are a lot of them. A lot. One of the great joys of the books was the omnipresent sense of mystery and conspiracy. As the series progresses, it becomes dense with unsolved questions, and even by the series’ end most of them remain unanswered. When the last book came out when I was a kid, I was furious that it didn’t tie up any of the loose ends promised in the rest of the books. Re-reading it as an adult, however, it’s absolutely brilliant. From chapter one of the first book, you are warned that the story does not have a happy ending. You are told that the story will waste your time and will only serve to bring you misery and woe. And it does. By the end, you are just more unhappy and frustrated than you began. It’s stupid, it’s infuriating, and it’s possibly one of the greatest tricks ever played by an author. And the beauty of it is that he never tricks you. He warned you and you didn’t listen. It’s perfect. So why then, eleven years later, does the same author come back and explain everything? Seriously, almost every mystery is explained. And in season one no less. Season one. It just confounds me how Handler subverts his own beautifully crafted story after finishing it in such a gutsy manner. Again, much like the re-structured material, the added material isn’t bad. In fact, some of it is extremely entertaining. However, unlike the re-structured material, it truly does act as an overall detriment to the piece as a whole and the overall mythos that Handler/Snicket has so meticulously woven.
So, yah. It’s a mixed bag. A highly watchable, highly entertaining mixed bag. People who have read the books will enjoy it, but become increasingly annoyed by the inconsistencies. People who haven’t read the books will enjoy it, but will miss out on the sense of mystery that pervaded the books and made the series intriguing in the first place. The show simply tells you too much, and in the end will probably end up making no one perfectly happy. But hey, they warned you to look away.
About the Author
Writer & Editor
Rob Condas is a sophomore at James Madison University, and is currently pursuing a B.A. in theatre. His fashion sense has been described of that of a “hipster Mr. Rogers,” which he begrudgingly does not dispute.
He hopes to someday run a creepy old book shop that disappears the day after you buy one of its mysterious items. His position at Reduced Pulp is that of editor