"The Bad Beginning" Is Anything But in Netflix's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'
Both visually and narratively, A Series of Unfortunate Events works far better as a series than the ill-conceived film that preceeded it; a gothic fable for our time.
A Series of Unfortunate EventsCast: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes
Subtitle: Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 - "The Bad Beginning, Parts 1 and 2"
Air date: 2017-01-13
This review contains potential spoilers for those who have not read the books.
The original A Series of Unfortunate Events movie, which combined the first three books -- The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window -- was utterly disappointing for fans of the books (myself included). These books were a central part of my childhood in a big way: whileHarry Potter was universally beloved, the Lemony Snicket books were for the weirder kids who didn't mind dark humor and tragic endings. Yet despite so much rich material, the feature film, starring Jim Carrey, failed to do the books justice, especially in our current age of turning one book into two (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts One and Two, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts One and Two, and Divergent) or even three (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies) films, seems impossibly dated. Why would you turn three books into one movie when you could milk the series endlessly for infinite movies (and prequels and spinoffs, et cetera)?
Perhaps the more relevant question is why would you change a beloved, popular series so much for the movie adaptation (see also: Percy Jackson and the Olympians)? The movie managed to gloss over the most important and pertinent themes of the tragic tale of the Baudelaire orphans, instead focusing on the steampunk aesthetic and cartoonish performance of Carrey as Count Olaf, who adopts the children after the death of their parents with the intent of stealing their family fortune. Admittedly, it would’ve taken many years to adapt all 13 of A Series of Unfortunate Events books into individual films; audiences may have stopped caring after the fourth or fifth outing, so turning this series into television feels like the right choice.
Unlike The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events has no action sequences to speak of, and little to none of the romantic subplots characteristic of typical blockbusters. Allowing the increasingly complex story to unfold slowly and delicately, devoting two episodes to each novel, is a more optimal solution.
As a visual work, A Series of Unfortunate Events -- both in movie and in television show form -- has a tricky balancing act. It must walk the line between evils both large and small, while keeping both poignant and equally impactful: the ordinary awfulness of ignorance, greed, abuse, and the abnegation of responsibility and justice, and the more dramatic, stylized Gothic horror story that is the lives of the Baudelaire orphans. On the one hand, if the adaptation were to focus on the former aspect entirely, it could feel preachy and banal and lack the medium-specific nature of the visual. On the other, if the latter aspect of the series were given the lion’s share of attention, as in the 2004 movie, the important social messages would be -- and were -- utterly lost.
While this adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events isn't a perfect piece of art or ideal streamlining of the story, it is, as of the two episodes I've watched, a far better attempt than the film; it might even qualify as an overall success. The casting and acting is largely effective and strong, with Louis Hynes' Klaus Baudelaire, the scholarly middle child, standing out in particular among the three children. The Baudelaires are meant to be precocious and curious, which can sometimes translate into extremely annoying characters on screen (see: Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace). Yet Hynes and Malina Weissman, who plays the oldest sibling, the inventive Violet, both balance their characters' youth and innocence with their intelligence and skepticism, providing convincing sibling interactions. The emotions they evoke when they're disappointed by the people meant to both protect and support them are palpable and upsetting, if only because we know their troubles are only beginning.
(Presley Smith is a perfectly cute Sunny Baudelaire, but if the series is to continue, I wonder how they’ll manage to age up the character while avoiding the creepy factor of Renesmee [Mackenzie Foy] from Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2.) The supporting characters are also well-cast thus far, with Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack) and Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) combining their good intentions with their foolhardy unwavering trust in authority and the decency of others.
It seems, however, that Count Olaf remains an unplayable character in any adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Neil Patrick Harris puts on the garish makeup and chews the scenery, clearly relishing this out-of-left-field role. Maybe he isn't so much miscast as the character itself is poorly translated onto the screen. The 2004 movie was basically a showcase for Carrey to act wackily and comedically sinister and, while Harris is a little more subtle, neither performance ultimately works for the simple fact that we aren’t meant to laugh either at or with Count Olaf. Count Olaf isn't supposed to charm us with his wickedness; in order for us to understand the Baudelaires' rightful fear of this man, we have to be afraid of him or, at the very least, severely repulsed and creeped-out by him, only finding the smallest amount of amusement in an ironic way.
Again, we see the problem of the adaptations' two potential directions -- the heightened and the all-too-real -- Count Olaf is a violent, vindictive murderer, exaggerated and theatrical in his actions and schemes, but he also displays more common abusive behaviors, relying on gas-lighting, lying, manipulating, faking kindness, and issuing and acting on physical threats -- to get what he wants. In this way, Count Olaf is a character whom should give us pause at the very least, yet both Carrey's and Harris' interpretations focus more on the style and less on the subtext.
Harris might have seemed a strange but inspired choice, having channeled an everyday controlling, sinister air in Gone Girl, but this nuance is lost in both adaptations of A Series of Unfortunate Events. We don't need scenes of Count Olaf outside of the perspective of the orphans, hastily disguising himself and worming his way into places he shouldn’t be, because we don't need to necessarily care about him as a person (at least not until much, much later in the series). We shouldn't normalize Olaf by laughing at him, as Carrey's and Harris' performances seem to encourage, because we need to remember that nothing about him is funny to our protagonists: he's a nightmare come to life, willing to use every trick in the book to harm them and steal their fortune, following them wherever they go, reminding them that they aren't -- and never will be -- safe.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is largely successful in translating the sardonic nature of the text itself into television, using the character of the author himself, the mysterious Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), as a narrator and breaker of the fourth wall. Warburton is an odd casting choice for Snicket, if only because my only exposure to him prior to this series was as the decidedly daffy Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove. He keenly provides the requisite tone of the series in his asides and non-diegetic speeches in which he tells us, repeatedly, to stop watching. Unfortunately, some of the original mystery of the series is lost by showing us Snicket in the flesh right off the bat, since the books operated on the premise that the author was on the run from enemies and in disguise, managing to send each manuscript to his editor surreptitiously. Even the supplemental materials of the series, which allow a glimpse of Snicket's own tortured and secretive past, never gave us a clear view of what he actually looked like. Unless the show has a trick up its sleeve in this manner (to be revealed in a later season, perhaps), then some of the fundamental elusiveness of the series is lost in translation.
On a similar note, the inclusion of many new elements of foreshadowing is hit-or-miss. The hints of what'll eventually become the V.F.D. enigma central to later books is included in often clumsy ways, such as Klaus finding a mysterious object in the ruins of his parents’ home bearing the cryptic symbols of V.F.D., setting up a clear future MacGuffin. The joy of immersing myself in the series came, in part, from watching the narrative change from an episodic tragedy into a detailed, far-reaching web of conspiracy; thus, it feels like the Netflix series is showing us its hand a bit too early, perhaps to keep audiences not familiar with the source material engaged and interested in further seasons.
The Netflix series already had a huge advantage over the film; the book series ended in 2006, two years after the movie, giving this adaptation a complete story to tease out. For fans of the book, I worry that some of the excitement of upcoming plot twists will be lessened by the ponderous way the show is laying the groundwork for them. For those unfamiliar with the book, these elements might be confusing, and could've been done more organically and subtly.
On the positive side, while not quite equalling the unified nature of the movie's design, the Wes Anderson-esque compositional techniques of many sequences, as well as the anachronistic mix of technologies and atmosphere, helps translate the off-kilter nature of the books into the visual. The color palette and costuming choices works as well, especially the literal way the Baudelaires represent a spot of color, of ingenuity and hope, against gloomy gray landscapes. The nature of A Series of Unfortunate Events as children’s literature that adults will also enjoy is emphasized by the set design as well, with color and texture clearly used to connote trustworthiness and goodness vs dishonesty and evil. The hodge-podge nature of the aesthetics of the show is clearly meant to differentiate itself from the more distinctive look of the movie, and hopefully will allow for more creative freedom in future episodes and seasons, as the setting of the events in time becomes increasingly muddled.
A Series of Unfortunate Events's story of survival and struggle is incredibly important, and the series is certainly worth a watch so far. The narrative reminds us that sometimes those with power and influence over our lives will fail us, sometimes out of negligence and indifference, and sometimes out of malice. Look no further than Poe's refusal to remove the children from Count Olaf's surely-condemned home the moment he sees it in its ramshackle, rat-infested state, because he insists on dedicating himself to the letter of the Baudelaire parents' will. He continually gives Count Olaf endless trust and benefit of the doubt, rather than deferring to his own common sense or listen to the children’s pleas for help.
The tale of the Baudelaires reminds us that merely accepting the way things are is unwise, and that it takes ingenuity, will, critical thought, and love to survive. The three Baudelaire children, with their clear-eyed intelligence and focus on truth and justice, serve as powerful examples of resilience and strength in the face of the circumstances that led to their lives becoming tragedies. For that, I look forward to watching the rest of the series.