When A Series of Unfortunate Events was adapted into a film in 2004, things took a turn for the… unfortunate. On paper, and even somewhat on screen, everything seemed to be in place for a stellar film and a handful of sequels to follow its success. The cast was fairly star-studded, featuring the likes of Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep, and the sets were beautifully dreary, but sadly, while the film is not without its finer qualities, in the end it was a bit of a mess. It relied far too heavily on Carrey’s outrageous body comedy, to the point where he largely overshadowed the other players, and the plot skipped around in ways that were unnecessary and made it evident that the scriptwriters were not wholly concerned with staying faithful to some of the more salient plot points. It wasn’t the worst it could have been, but it felt like it fell just short of good enough when it came to bringing Snicket’s quaint and dismal world to life. Not so with Netflix’s latest iteration, which manages to stay faithful to the book’s very fixed trajectory and while simultaneously making alterations that serve to enhance characters and established mythos.
A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the story of siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, who, after a sudden and suspicious fire, are left homeless and orphaned. This tragedy sets the children down a bizarre path of constantly shifting guardianship and adult incompetency, and places them directly in the crosshairs of a devious man bent on taking hold of their rather sizable fortune by any means necessary. Through their trials and tribulations, the children use their various talents (Violet’s flair for invention, Klaus’s voracious appetite for knowledge, and Sunny’s ability to bite and chew her way through tough materials), not only to escape ever present danger but to unravel the mystery of their parents’ untimely death and the man who seeks to profit from it. Netflix’s Series covers four of the thirteen novels that comprise the original tale, taking the Baudelaire orphans from the wreckage of their old life, through the homes of villain Count Olaf, herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery, shut-in, grammar fanatic Josephine Anwhistle, and a lumber mill most ill-suited for children.
Ostensibly it doesn’t appear that much new ground is being covered here. Though viewers have the benefit of seeing the fourth novel play out in live action for the first time in this season’s final episodes, most of what is being shown is familiar enough territory. The villains are still vicious, the responsible adults are still profoundly dense, and the world is still quite dreary for the young protagonists. That said, it is the way in which these stories are told, or rather retold, that allows this version to shine brighter than its predecessor.
First and foremost, you have the presentation of author Lemony Snicket, played by a fantastically stoic Patrick Warburton. In any of his incarnations, Snicket has been an essential part of the fiction as his straightforward but nonetheless melancholic narration guides readers or, in this case viewers, through the Baudelaires’ tale of woe from behind the scenes. However, this Snicket is much more present, resting glumly against the program’s fourth wall as he explains, defines, and elucidates various plot points, all the while begging viewers to find entertainment elsewhere. So too are onlookers treated to a glimpse into Snicket’s, at times, harrowing movements and travels as he chronicles and researches the lives of the orphans. In this way, he manages to be outside of the main plot but still very much a part of the action in ways he never was previously. This device works extremely well in keeping asides from being tedious, and Warburton’s delivery is able to convey Snicket’s grim musings without becoming unnecessarily melodramatic.
As for the rest of the cast, Series‘ characters walk a fine but overall much needed line between faithful and markedly altered. For the most part, the Baudelaires are largely and satisfactorily unchanged from their print counterparts, and newcomers Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith do a fair job highlighting the orphans’ expected dismay and cleverness, along with the more human reactions to their plight, be it confused anger from Klaus or wry, acerbic sarcasm from Sunny by way of subtitles and mugging for the camera. Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf is also very much like the man introduced in Snicket’s freshman novel. This Olaf is appropriately dark and menacing (setting aside the odd musical number), and while still played for more laughs than I recall in the source material, is no longer subject to the utter buffoonery found in Carrey’s earlier portrayal. Conversely, several characters have been noticeably transformed, but by all appearances for the better. The aesthetic changes created with the casting of actors Aasif Mondvi, Alfre Woodard, K. Todd Freeman, and Usman Ally are the most obvious, and certainly a welcome upswing in terms of the story’s diversity, but it is the shift in some of these individuals’ behaviors and motivations that truly stand out. Mondvi’s Doctor Montgomery Montgomery, for example, is less doddering, dense adult and more warm, loving guardian, not only fully invested in the children’s safety, but perhaps actually capable of providing the protection they need (if only for a tragically brief amount of time). Along those same lines, Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine presents a figure whose staunchly phobic nature and strict adherence to grammar are immediately recognizable to those with knowledge of her origin, but also delivers moments with enough backbone to finally convince the audience that she truly was fierce and formidable in her day (sorry Meryl). Here, there is familiarity without the staleness that often comes of rehashing.
In the vein of the familiar, Series also has an ever-present and vital undercurrent of intrigue that similarly ran through the entirety of the books, but goes so far as to one up its beginnings by way of broadening this facet of the narrative. In books one through thirteen, the Baudelaire children became increasingly entrenched in the schemes and machinations of a fractured secret society, the influence of which played heavily into their past and future miseries. Whereas a good portion of the novels’ dealings with this element were often maddeningly cryptic and purposefully obtuse, the show seeks to expand it into something meatier and far more accessible to the masses, leaving Easter eggs for long-time fans and creating a plot thread thick enough to grasp from its very beginnings all the way to its (spoilers) gut punch of a season-ending twist.
As with any adaption, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t a perfect show. The young actors’ growing pains show from time to time in some of the trickier sections of script, and as previously mentioned the musical interludes, though few and far between, may not be for everyone, but even taking these small qualms into account, the series can easily be counted amongst some of Netflix’s best programming. All told, I’m going to have to politely disagree with Lemony Snicket’s impassioned pleas to look away and insist that you do yourself a favor and binge this one posthaste (a phrase which here means voraciously devour as quickly and immediately as possible).
Rating: Four and a Half Suspicious Eye Tattoos out of Five.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.