Loyal fans of the Lemony Snicket universe can rest easy with an adaptation that keeps the complicated plot and characters intact. It’s not exactly perfect, but it’s definitely not the (truly) bad beginning we might’ve had. Spoilers ahead.
When the 2004 film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events came to theatres I was disappointed for a number of reasons. The neo-gothic sets, costuming and musical score of the movie fit the beloved children’s books I’d grown up with, but severely missed the mark in trying to capture the tone and humour that made them so distinct. More than that, it buried its source material’s purposeful storyline in a nonsensical mash-up of three books in one feature-length film.
Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is able to correct the failings of its predecessor by taking the time needed to really develop its characters and settings as they’re introduced. Each book is captured within two 40-minute episodes, and each episode is bookended — and occasionally interrupted, true to the books — by narration from Patrick Warburton’s hilariously deadpan Lemony Snicket.
The most glaring weakness of the Netflix series for some fans, including myself, is the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. The Count Olaf of the novels is eccentric and comical, but also threatening and sinister. In Harris’ defence, the character of Olaf is probably impossible to portray faithfully thanks to his oxymoronic characterization. But Harris’ Count Olaf is more goofy and bumbling than frightening. Consequently, the series is missing the real sense of dread surrounding him in the books. Even Jim Carrey’s Olaf, the epitome of goofiness, had more of a chance of inspiring fear.
The few intentional differences between the books and the Netflix series are forgivable for the excitement and context they add to the story of the Baudelaires. The series explores the secret society of the Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) from the very beginning, whereas the books only sprinkled sparse clues and nods to it for the first few novels. Thanks to this inclusion, the show is able to keep even the most thorough Lemony Snicket readers fascinated and guessing.
This is where the Netflix series really does Lemony Snicket creator Daniel Handler justice. Even after ending the book series in 2006 with the thirteenth instalment, The End, Handler left his readers with more than a few questions unanswered about the VFD.
Choosing to explore the unknown territory of the novels’ universe makes the Netflix series worthwhile to newcomers and fresh and unexpected for seasoned fans of the books. If you aren’t one of those seasoned fans, or haven’t yet finished the series, beware the next paragraph.
The inclusion of Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders as the Mother and Father seen in the very first episode throws a curveball at the hard-core fans with the implication that the Baudelaire’s parents survived the fire. Theintroduction of hope in this first episode allows the reveal of Arnett and Smulders as the Quagmire parents instead to pack a dramatic and devastating punch in the gut to anyone still holding out for a happy ending — in true Snicket form.
Using this backwards introduction of the Quagmire family, who will eventually play a bigger role in the Baudelaire’s story, the show’s writers prove that they’re able to handle the twists and turns of the books with grace, giving fans everywhere confidence for the second season and a respectful renaissance of Lemony Snicket’s world.
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