I’ve always been in two minds about whether or not a TV adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler) A Series of Unfortunate Events could ever work.
Having been a avid fan of the books since they were first released, I was disappointed when the film was released back in 2004, and eventually settled on skepticism, believing that writing style and continued woe that befalls the Baudelaire children could never translate well.
That being said, when I heard Netflix had taken up the series, I was quietly hopeful.
I was surprised by their decision to cast Neil Patrick Harris as the villainous Count Olaf, and Patrick Warburton as on-screen narrator Lemony Snicket. I’m pleased to report though that both did exceptionally well.
For those who are entering A Series of Unfortunate Events completely blind, here is a quick rundown.
The Baudelaire siblings Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) become orphans after a fire destroys their home and claims the lives of their parents. They are due to inherit a huge fortune, but cannot access it until Violet comes of legal age. Their woe continues as they are sent to live with Count Olaf, a distant family relative who is determined to get his hands on their fortune no matter the consequences. The executor of the orphans estate, Mr Poe (K. Todd Freeman) is meant to keep the siblings safe, but displays a level of incompetence and ineptitude believable only in fiction.
There were 13 books published in total, and this first season covers books one through to four. Each book is given two episodes.
There was a lot to enjoy about the first series, although I can appreciate that these points are totally subjective.
The first thing that struck me was the feel of the world in which the characters inhabit. It has a very Tim Burton feel to it, with colours that pop, while at the same time conveying a sense of dreariness and misery. The combination of CGI and big-set pieces are beautiful to look at and strike the right balance between comic-like and intimidating. From the beach where the orphans first received the terrible news (to comedic effect), to the reptile room, to the shores of Lake Lachrymose, it was a visual delight.
The actors, on the whole, were perfectly cast. As stated, I had doubts about NPH as Olaf, but his versatility shines through here. He successfully marries the bad acting skills of Olaf, with the love of disguises, and more than a mere hint of threatening. I do believe he could afford to ramp up his sinister side, because there were a few points that left me more amused than genuinely concerned about the safety of the orphans.
Speaking of which, the three Baudelaire’s performed admirably, if not a little robotically at times. Weissman as the inventive eldest sibling displayed both compassion, sorrow and intelligence in abundance. Hynes was slightly less impressive in his performance of middle-child and bookworm Klaus, occasionally coming across as whiney and wooden. However, he did have a part in one of the more shocking and unexpected scenes in the series – but I won’t spoil that for you. Infant Sunny, played by Presley Smith and voiced by Tara Strong acts as well as you’d expect a baby to do, but her animated moments offer humorous moments throughout.
Netflix also secured a plethora of big name stars to guest in the series, such as Alfre Woodard, Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Catherine O’Hara and Rhys Darby. All deliver stellar performances which serve to enhance both the plot and the quality of the storytelling.
What also worked very much in Unfortunate Events‘ favour was the decision to split each book over two episodes, giving two hours to fully flesh out and explore each woeful scenario in detail. This is one of the key issues with the 2004 film adaptation; it simply crammed too much into too little time.
As somebody who grew up reading the books and absolutely hanging on every word Handler wrote, I absolutely love how accurately they have been conveyed on screen. Despite it being over a decade since the last novel was released, I still have very clear images of scenes built up in my head as a child, and watching this show seems to have plucked said scenes straight from my head and put them on screen.
It was by no means a perfect series though, and there is plenty that directors can build upon for series two.
For a start, and I touched upon this a little above, but the acting of the children could be a tiny bit robotic. It did smooth out as the series progressed, but it took a little bit of faith on the viewer’s part. I think this could have in part been down to failures to translate the original writing over to screen.
Although surprisingly faithful to the books, some of Handler’s writing techniques came across as gratuitous. For example, in the books, Lemony Snicket often interjected with “a word which here means…” whenever a word of complexity is used. Perhaps it is because I am no longer the target market, but on-screen, this was used with words of trivial complexity, which had already to some extent been defined by the non fourth wall breaking characters.
However, there were a few times where I was tempted to take Warburton’s advice and switch over to something more uplifting, but more importantly, significantly less testing.
Mr Poe’s character in particular wound me up. What was at the beginning a shared sense of frustration and annoyance at Poe’s inability to adequately protect the children, his continued ineptitude and refusal point blank to believe or entertain their protests becomes frustrating and annoying for entirely the wrong reasons. No longer are you left sympathising or empathising with the Baudelaire siblings, you’re simply bored. His occasional hammy acting and over the top condescension lurches from necessary to underpin the sheer hopelessness of the orphan’s situation, to simply boring.
As a viewer you know that the orphans will be left to fend for themselves for the majority of the episode, and will only at the very end receive any kind of intervention from a concerned adult. Although formulaic in nature, the events that unfold in each book should be enough to keep your mind from that. But with Poe being as prevalent as he is, you’re reminded throughout that all adults appear to have an IQ on par with the Lachrymose leeches.
There was a definite lack of consistency in terms of quality throughout the episodes. Although having two episodes per book was a good decision to allow more time for character development, it did then also offer the opportunity for episodes to become a bit of a mess. Episode two and four were guilty of devolving into a unstructured shambles. This didn’t detract from the enjoyment necessarily, but it did have me reaching over for my phone instead of keeping me enthralled.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is the latest in Netflix’s Original Series offerings, and it serves to only emphasise just how well they are doing at the moment. Amid reports of bumper growth, and numerous award nominations, Netflix can, although shouldn’t, rest on their laurels knowing they’ve added yet another hugely successful series to their roster.
There is certainly tidying and tightening up to do, with both directors and writers working together to tone down the patronising tone. However, given the challenges in translating an occasionally formulaic and repetitive source material, that was nothing if not slow to tease out plot developments and it has had an exceptionally promising start.
Despite the negatives, there is still so much to love from this series. If you were a fan of the books growing up, you too will almost certainly be pulled back to your childhood, and gain more than a small sense of glee that those books are getting the visual interpretation they deserve.
There is a bittersweet feeling of knowing you’re possibly no longer the target audience, given that anyone who grew up reading the books as they were released are now certainly in their 20s. The faithful recreation of the books is brilliant to see, but also serves to emphasise just how much we as the original audience have grown up. Netflix could have taken a more mature and serious tone with the series to make it more appealing to the original audiences, but I think they made the right decision. At points you may be ripped out of the world with some brow-raising moments, but you’re quickly sucked back in.
If you are looking for a tale of woe and misfortune, shrouded in a coating of sardonicism and slapstick humour, then this is the show to watch next!