A Series of Unfortunate Events
Directors: Barry Sonnenfeld, Mark Palansky and Bo Welch
Writer: Daniel Handler
Starring: Neill Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith
“I have some very bad news for you, children. Your Parents have perished in a terrible fire.”
– Mr. Poe
Written across a 7-year period starting in 1999, A Series of Unfortunate Events was a 13-part book series following the traumatic lives of three orphaned children; Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire. Using a Victorian Gothic style and unparalleled levels of satire, the book series was successful enough to be translated into movie form in 2004, where, despite success, the on-screen legacy temporarily ended due to the constraints of filming with 3 young children. Now, Netflix has tackled the series once more, producing 8 episodes which span 4 of the 13 books. Without further adieu, let’s get on to taking a look at them!
The Bad Beginning: part one and two
The story opens with the narrative that so many young millennials will remember from our youths – Violet, Klaus and Sonny on the bleak beach, where Mr. Poe, the banker in control of the Baudelaire fortune, tells them that their parents have passed away in a devastating fire. What follows is a farcical and yet complex series (of, you guessed it;) unfortunate events, which lead to the children’s adoption by their eccentric and unnerving uncle, Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who treats the children cruelly from the get-go.
The difficulty facing the Netflix show producers here may be unlike anything which has faced them before; they’re dealing with a well-loved, successful book-cum-movie franchise; one where the movie surpassed fan expectations at setting the scene, casting and representing the books. However, it’s safe to say the show didn’t disappoint. Neil Patrick Harris creates a comic yet sinister Count Olaf which easily matches that of Jim Carrey in the 2004 film, and the three children handle the difficult roles and style with grace and confidence.
The show also immediately makes viewers aware that they’re not afraid of change too, with topical, modern pop-culture references interwoven through the original, sardonic text and creating a real sense of the timelessness of the books. A particular favourite would be a tongue-in-cheek reference to online shopping (and consequent dodgy products) when Olaf turns an hourglass only to find a much less dramatic 1-minute long timer than he’d intended.
Another significant change to the previous on-screen iteration of narrator and author Lemony Snicket is in his physical presence within the scenes – Patrick Warburton’s dulcet tones and foreboding, dominating presence are often found within scenes rather than just narrating over the top of them, an addition which certainly adds to the sense of the series as his life work and research. Warburton’s stoic nature and presentation also serve to enhance the humour of the role, and cement him as the best person for the role.
Perhaps the most intriguing change to the series throughout is the addition of a Mother and Father who are alive and endeavouring to return to their children, and who look suspiciously like the Baudelaire parents… there will be no spoilers on this particular plot-line, but it certainly makes for a fascinating addition to the series. Also, the actions of other V.F.D agents also permeate the narrative in an unprecedented way, which certainly develop a sense of the wider world in which the Baudelaire’s are operating.
Whilst the first book and two episodes may have faced many challenges in representing and adapting the well-loved plot of Count Olaf, having two hours instead of a third of the film to develop upon the Count, the children, Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss, enabled the producers to create a stunning, dynamic and comical re-introduction to the plight of the Baudelaire orphans.
The Reptile Room: part one and two
Montgomery Montgomery (Aasig Mandvi), the Baudelaire’s intended guardian for their children, may be the favourite guardian of most readers and viewers alike. An eccentric and lively herpetologist, Monty provides a lighter comic relief following the dark humour of Count Olaf and his motley crew, and it is in his home that the real tragedy of the Baudelaire’s lives arguably begins.
The children quickly develop a bond with Monty, who, whilst as oblivious as many of the other adults in the narrative to Olaf’s villainy, begins to show a real love for the children and promises them a future of happiness and security. The children begin to notice, however, strange similarities and symbols which connect not only Monty to their parents, despite them never having mentioned him, but also to Count Olaf, such as his unsettling ankle tattoo.
As the story progresses and the happiness which the Baudelaire orphans had begun to find unravels, more clues surrounding the V.F.D and the potential murder of Beatrice and Bertrand Baudelaire appear, and the children’s unique skills and personalities really begin to shine. Once again, whilst the film indeed handled the children’s characters well, the Netflix show certainly is enabled to develop upon them further due to the lack of time constraints, and the audiences bond to the children may be increased twofold because of this.
Another thing to note may be the permeation of literary references which are much more noticeable in the Netflix show than they are in the film – a personal favourite here would be the inclusion Virginian Wolfsnake, which one should never ever let near a typewriter.
Once again, Netflix isn’t handling uncharted ground here, but tackles the setting of Professor Monty’s home with ingenuity, light-hearted comedy and the greatest respect for the source materials. In doing so, they create a beautiful and believable potential home for the Baudelaire’s – until of course, it all falls apart.
The Wide Window: part one and two
The Wide Window is the last of the books to have been presented on-screen by the previous movie, and may arguably be one of the more difficult of the three to replicate, but Netflix once more comes on top. Aunt Josephine (played by Alfre Woodard) is suitably paranoid with just the right amount of grammatical obsession, and her evident symptoms (which most likely relate to a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder) are presented with just the right amount of satire, leading her to be an infuriating, impractical and yet somehow endearing character.
Aunt Josephine’s safe and library may be the place where the Baudelaire’s initially learn the most about their heritage – whilst, unlike Monty, Aunt Josephine is much more covert about her past due to the loss of her beloved Ike, the documentation which she maintained about the V.F.D and the Baudelaire parents is much more extensive than anything the children find in the home of Monty, enabling the plot to thicken doubly as Olaf’s treachery also increases.
Lake Lachrymose, the home of Aunt Josephine, is in itself a masterpiece of imagination and creativity on behalf of author Daniel Handler and the Netflix team. The idea of a Lake infested with man-eating leeches has and will always be terrifying, especially when combined with the childhood lesson that one should never swim within an hour of eating. It’s this play on juvenile memories and mentalities combined with the dark humour of Handler that really characterises the series, and reliving this moment on screen may still illicit the chills to this day. Not many children would have risked swimming after eating after reading the books, and seeing Josephine fall to her unfortunate yet inevitable end only cements that fear.
It’s in this two-part episode that Mr. Poe’s idiocy is finally made concrete too, where for the third time he fails to identify Count Olaf and protect the children from his schemes, despite the complete absurdity of his disguise. Poe has some wonderful comedic moments in the latter part of this book, and the show, once more, does not fail to utilise his character.
The Miserable Mill: part one and two
With the start of this episode begins the real legacy of this Netflix series, as they are finally enabled to entirely put their own stamp on Handler’s source material without the fear of being compared to the film at every turn. The episode opens with the Baudelaire’s, completely alone, on the back of a truck as they travel to Lucky Smells Lumber Mill – the only clue that they have to what, or who, their parents may have been involved with.
As they arrive at the mill after a bumpy ride to get there, they are forcibly reminded once more that the world is not as simple, kind or even logical as they may have been led to believe. The owner, Sir (Don Johnson), puts them to work as his ambiguously titled ‘partner,’ the dithering Charles (Rhys Darby), proves impotent at protecting them.
For the first time in these episodes, viewers are also introduced to a villain aside from Count Olaf and his theatre troupe; the unhinged (and incredibly intelligently named) Dr. Georgina Orwell, brought to life by Catherine O’Hara as the one-time lover of Count Olaf and the mastermind behind the slavery at the Miserable Mill.
This book also provides the chance to break away from the ‘new guardian’ format of the previous three, and with that creates new character roles, themes and challenges for the Baudelaire’s to face.
Perhaps the most prominent thing to be noticed as the series continues is the shift to the absurd; whilst reality and fantasy are indeed combined in the earlier episodes and books, the utter fallacy of the Miserable Mill and the following stories are what may be remembered best by the fans of the book series. This story introduces many fantastic elements such as the mass-hypnosis of the workers, as well as acts that perhaps defy any and all logic, such as the flattening of optimistic Phil’s leg, and his subsequent appearance at the end of the episode with a functioning (yet exceedingly malformed) appendage in a very Dahl-esque way.
This is undoubtedly a successful incarnation of the series. It manages to capture entirely the themes, tones and intelligence of the series, and in doing so creates a much more developed and well-rounded world than the film could with such limited materials and time. By bringing so many new elements to the narrative which neither the original books nor the movie attempted to, the series also begins what will hopefully be the respectful transition of the Baudelaire children into the demanding world of 21st Century Television, where many viewers may get bored without being challenged to solve the mysteries of a story.
In saying that, the series must also be taken with a pinch of salt. Much like the novels themselves, it must be remembered that they take place in a very niche market, and not everyone can enjoy the parody of such mature themes. This isn’t to say that said themes aren’t deftly and respectfully handled, only that there is a sense of dry humour that runs throughout the novels, which, despite the warnings of the narrator, may not be for everyone.
The series concludes with what was a personal favourite in terms of additions to the series; a short but sweet song sung by the various characters, which re-iterates the overarching message of the novel; this is a story of grief, of unending heartbreak, and of the cruel realities of growing up. Cheery, right?
RATING: 4.5 orphaned aristocrats out of 5