If you’re at an age where the Series of Unfortunate Events books were formative reading, you’ve probably been waiting for an on-screen adaptation for quite some time. Whilst the 2004 Jim Carrey film is decent enough, its cramming of 3 stories into 90 minutes combined with Carrey’s famous disdain for sequels meant we never saw the full 13 books adapted.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is Netflix’s attempt to rectify this - this time as episodic television - and it largely succeeds, providing a sometimes muddled but always entertaining version of the story.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the Baudelaire children - Violet, Klaus and Sunny - whose parents are killed in a fire that burns down their home. From there they’re left to fend for themselves, ferried between a number of guardians during the 8 episode run - and always looking over their shoulders for the devious Count Olaf, a failing actor who is after their enormous fortune.
Olaf’s casting dominated the discussion leading up to the release of this series, since his is arguably the most important character to get right. Neil Patrick Harris does a fine job in the role, however, with the actor able to show off both his comedic and more sinister chops.
Some fans of the books may feel he is played and written slightly more comedic than the source material, but Harris manages to get the sadistic undertones of the character forward without resorting to the gurning of Jim Carrey in the film.
"A word which here means..."
Though the tone of the show overall means the character never strays too dark (there’s nothing like the brilliant moment in the film where Olaf sits outside the children’s room with a large knife), the occasional flashes of true menace are made more effective because of it. Olaf’s comment of “I can touch what I want” to a scared Violet whom he is attempting to marry, for example, brings home the idea that yeah, this guy isn’t very nice.
The format of the show means that each book is adapted into two 45-minute episodes. As the books are written for young adults, the early volumes are quite slim, meaning some liberties have to be taken to stretch each into 90 minutes. The show does a good job with this though, padding the narrative out without you noticing most of the time.
The main way it does this is by introducing a plot thread that doesn’t appear until much later in the novels. Whilst this might rob the story of some of the mystery early on, it’s a good way of introducing the wider arc without it coming out of nowhere later on.
Speaking of the wider arc, it’s clear that the real standout of the series is Patrick Warburton’s performance as Lemony Snicket. Tasked with being both the narrator and a (albeit mysterious) character in the show, his frequent appearances both encapsulate the tone of the story and are just plain fun. Striding on screen with an immaculate suit and haircut like he’s just wandered in from Mad Men (Jon Hamm would have also been a good choice), you’re gripped every time he’s there. The framing device of the show has him investigating what happened to the Baudelaire orphans, contextualising the story and guiding you through it with the postmodern 4th wall breaking that’s ever-present in the books.
"I prefer long-form television to the movies. It's so much more convenient."
The style and tone of the books is another part this series nails, largely down to the fact that author Daniel Handler takes care of most of the writing. The books were always pro-intellectualism and the series reflects this, with the children solving most of their problems with reading, research and thinking as well as Snicket explaining terms in a witty and ironic way.
Handler has upped the comedy aspect somewhat, with some genuinely laugh-out-loud lines and even 4th wall-breaking references to Netflix itself. Die-hard fans of the books may be expecting something darker, but the show does a decent job of making it suitable for children (which it needs to be) whilst also being entertaining to adults.
If you’ve already invested in a 4K TV, A Series of Unfortunate Events is well-recommended even if you’re not interested in books. It’s no secret that Netflix has a large budget for its original programming, and it really shows here.
Eye-popping pastel colours combine with outstanding set design to give the series a genuinely unique, almost steampunk look. At one point during episode 6, the characters are in a set within a set - the Anxious Clown restaurant in Lake Lachrymose - a simple thing that you might not even notice, but that offers a lot of depth.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a lovingly made, loyal adaptation of the book series. The cast has a lot of fun with a pacy, witty script and the stunning visuals make it well worth watching at any age. Whilst the fact that the target here is children/young adults will put off some, the end result is so charming that it’s hard to find fault.
You can catch the first season of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix now.