A Series of Unfortunate Events
Following the fatal fire that ended the lives of their parents, the Baudelaire siblings are passed on from one guardian to the next in an attempt to find a new home. However, the maliciously selfish Count Olaf pursues the children throughout their search with the intent of murdering them to steal the fortune that was left behind by their late parents.
The world of book-to-movie adaptations is filled with a disproportionate amount of disappointment. More often than not, the on-screen version of our favorite stories simply cannot live up to the depth and emotionality of their written counterparts. Expectations are left unmet. Favorite moments are left unseen. We walk out of the theater—sometimes after months of excitement—feeling a vague sense of longing for what could have been.
When A Series of Unfortunate Events was released as a feature film in 2004, it clumsily fell into this category. Another one of the greats had been slaughtered by a two hour time crunch.
Occasionally, though, there’s an adaptation that defies this rule. Occasionally you come across a story that not only meets the quality of its original form, but somehow exceeds it. Enhances it. Sometimes the creative team has a good enough handle on both the story and the medium to make a little bit of magic happen.
The 2017 release of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix is, in a word, magical.
If you were to name the most important aspect of a book-to-screen adaptation, what would you say? Is plot the most important element, with a need to be identical to the source material? Or maybe they really need to get the character design down. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two, as we watch familiar characters carry out familiar actions within a familiar story.
These things are important, certainly, and by giving these elements the attention they deserve, creators can make a very good adaptation. We saw this with The Hunger Games. We saw this with most of the Harry Potter films.
But in order to make a truly fantastic adaptation, there is one element that has to be replicated with immense care: tone. The tone of a story is its heart, beating life through each and every inch, making it feel alive. Plot and characters and themes are important, yes, but if a story doesn’t match the tone of its source material, it will feel hollow. Every time.
From the moment you hear Patrick Warburton’s voice as Lemony Snicket—an all but forgotten character in the 2004 adaptation, despite acting as the most important character in the books—something clicks. It feels different. His deep and somber voice settles a person into their seat. His calm sense of urgent alarm demands attention without feeling gimmicky. Audiences want to listen to him. To hear his story. Even if it is as grim as he promises.
It’s the exact same feeling a person gets when they read the books for the first time. It’s eerily spot on. Not only that, but this tone continues throughout the entire series, consistently breathing life into the greater narrative.
The credit for this element of brilliance is, of course, due to Daniel Handler. As the author of the original novels and also a profoundly talented screenwriter in his own right, he may have been the only man suited to the job of transferring these unique books to the screen. In 2004, he was cut out of the project for reasons that were never fully made public, and was usurped by another screenwriter that couldn’t possibly reach the same level of familiarity with the material. The difference in quality between the two adaptations acts as an example of how much good can happen when authors are given the chance to collaborate with their stories.
Handler’s beautiful script was then amplified by a group of actors truly dedicated to their craft, to their story, and to the field of children’s media. I can think of no better Lemony Snicket than Patrick Warburton—that is simply a fact in my mind. Neil Patrick Harris plays the foolish, gnarly, unsettling Count Olaf, embodying a level of humanity that Jim Carrey’s 2004 performance stripped away. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes deliver breakout performances that at once portray maturity and childhood. Each of them acts within the macabre framework set up by Handler, utilizing a careful speech pattern, establishing a consistent tone, moving and working in noticeably particular ways. It’s one step short of Shakespearean. Maybe even a half-step.
At the end, I cried. Ugly tears, filled with hope for humanity, despite all of the bad thing I had just witnessed. The most powerful stories do not deny humanity’s capability for terribleness, but rather, they highlight the good that happens despite it. The A Series of Unfortunate Events novels have always held a special place in my heart, but I doubted that it could ever make a smooth transition onto the screen. Rarely have I ever been so delighted to be proven wrong.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a work of art. It is as simple as that. The writing, the setting, the character design, the costume design, the acting, the tone—the list goes on until there is nothing left to say about it. This show is good, in a way that only a well-written children’s story can be. It’s a brilliant adaptation, and it stands well on its own. This is one of those series that will fill your soul.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: Second Time’s the Charm
- Writing - 10/1010/10
- Storyline - 9/109/10
- Acting - 10/1010/10
- Music - 6/106/10
- Production - 10/1010/10
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