Is Netflix’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ the Standard Bearer for YA Book Adaptations?
There’s no one answer to why some literary adaptations work and others don’t. Some are too reverent to the material, others too slapdash with it. A video essayist I admire recently went through the changes Peter Jackson made from the original text of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and why they were warranted. I’ve been thinking about Stanley Kubrick, and despite how masterful both A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are, they deviate from their source novels quite a bit. Stephen King in particular has always denounced Kubrick’s take on The Shining as inauthentic to his original version of the story. This has led to King producing a more faithful adaptation as a TV miniseries in the 1990’s and writing a sequel entitled Doctor Sleep that also eventually became a movie.
In my last piece, I was critical of the recent adaptation of His Dark Materials by HBO and the BBC. Those books were beloved to me, but this new iteration seemed unfocused and uneven. When it worked, it really worked, and when it didn’t, it fell flat. I said that the show suffered because it was chasing trends, most notably trying to be like megahits Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. I wanted another adaptation of a book series I loved growing up to compare it to, and then it hit me.
Like every other millennial who didn’t grow up in a strict household, I loved Harry Potter, but there was yet another book series that riveted me mostly in my tween years. Like His Dark Materials, it too had a movie adaptation in the mid-2000s that was serviceable but didn’t create the Harry Potter-esque levels of business it was expected to do, and never got a sequel. Also like His Dark Materials, it recently got the big-budget TV adaptation it probably always deserved in the streaming era. But unlike His Dark Materials, this one seemed to really fit the tone and narrative of the book series.
The series is A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler. In a perfect fit for the spooky season, the books were dark, gothic tales where the Baudelaire children, which included master inventor Violet, booksmart middle brother Klaus, and biting-obsessed toddler Sunny, were always threatened and thwarted by the villainous Count Olaf. Featuring impressive wordplay, a self-aware narrator who weaves into the narrative, and children characters who were orphaned yet self-reliant, the books were enthralling to me and I’m sure countless other kids.
The series ran for 13 installments, from 1999’s The Bad Beginning to 2006’s appropriately-named The End. The books could be formulaic, and the premise usually involved the Baudelaire children getting a new caretaker, only for Count Olaf and his troupe to arrive in disguise and usually cause a mess of things. The adults never seem to believe the children when they tell them that there’s evil afoot. At the same time, the orphans are stumbling onto a secret society both their parents and Olaf seemingly used to have ties to, known simply as V.F.D. The sister of narrator Lemony Snicket, Kit Snicket, occasionally pops in to aid the Baudelaires in the latter installments, and Kit’s arc is crucial to the story’s conclusion.
I say “formulaic” not as a criticism, but as something endearing. Once you knew the formula, it was fun to see how the Baudelaire children would respond to increasingly bizarre caretakers and other characters, as well as new settings and threats. If anything, that kind of storytelling is ripe for TV adaptation, where audiences get into new shows precisely because there’s a pretty uniform formula to the plots. But before A Series of Unfortunate Events got its much-needed TV adaptation, it got a big-budget movie. 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was directed by Brad Silberling and adapted the first three books of the series. It starred Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara, and Shelby Hoffman as the three children, with a supporting cast that included Jude Law as Lemony Snicket, Billy Connelly, Meryl Streep, Catherine O’Hara, and most notably, Jim Carrey as Count Olaf.
Overall, the movie was fine. I remember liking it when I saw it in theaters, and hoping that they would continue to adapt the successive books. All that being said, I don’t think I’m alone in stating that Carrey really is the weak spot that prevents the film from succeeding more. Jim Carrey exudes big, dumb energy, it’s what he’s known for. But that’s not necessarily appropriate for a vile, scheming character like Count Olaf. The Lemony Snicket movie came on the heels of Carrey doing a big, bombastic performance as the villain in another adaptation of a beloved children’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The studio needed a bankable star, and Carrey checked a lot of boxes. But like Johnny Depp’s attempt at Willy Wonka the following year, it just seemed to hit the wrong note and rubbed people enough the wrong way that it impacted and limited the film’s success, preventing a sequel.
But right when I lost hope we would ever get a proper adaptation of the books, in swooped Netflix with a commitment to adapt them faithfully and a serialized narrative that always felt more at home in the world of streaming and television. This new adaptation ran for 25 episodes across 3 seasons from 2017 to 2019. This time, the young cast is led by Malina Weissman, known for roles on Supergirl and in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), as Violet, Louis Hynes as Klaus, and Presley Smith as Sunny. The supporting cast is just as, if not more impressive, featuring not only Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket himself but turns by the likes of Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, Joan Cusack, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Catherine O’Hara again, Tony Hale, Peter MacNicol, with Nathan Fillion and Allison Williams as Snicket’s siblings. And, of course, the big headliner starring as Count Olaf this time around is Neil Patrick Harris.
But the thing is, as great as it is to see famous stars and well-respected character actors make appearances, the performances that stick and really resonate come from newcomers as much as established stars. Take Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats, an antagonizing bully of the Baudelaires who refers to them as “cakesniffers” and later gets “adopted” by Olaf and his lover, the vapid Esme Squalor (Lucy Punch). Turnbull brings out a maliciousness to Carmelita that makes the character stand out amidst a crowded cast and makes her performance a very memorable one.
The show seemed more in line with the books’ macabre sense of humor reminiscent of Roald Dahl. The aesthetic of the show takes elements from Wes Anderson and a lot from its executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld. In addition to directing the tonally-similar first two Addams Family movies in the early 1990’s, Sonnenfeld leant his hand to one of my favorite shows, Pushing Daisies, distinct because of its colorful tone and imagery, and won an Emmy for directing its pilot.
He was the original choice to direct the 2004 movie, but his influence on this series helps to give it a distinct visual flare in keeping with the book’s aesthetics and illustrations. The show constantly hit the right tone and could be as bleak as the original books, while opting for a new way of how to convey this. I think of a musical number at the end of the first season called “That’s Not How the Story Goes” that feels like it could’ve been original to one of the books, as the characters sing a song of lament as they face an unknown future.
If the series had a weak link, surprisingly, it might be Harris as Count Olaf. Like Carrey, he isn’t intimidating and lacks the malevolence that I think the character should have. He should be occasionally menacing, not constantly goofy. It’s not a terrible performance or not even one that detracts from the show’s successes, but it’s even harder to take Harris seriously in the role knowing he started off in Doogie Howser, M.D. This was the guy who charmed himself into a career comeback thanks to projects like How I Met Your Mother, Harold & Kumar and Dr. Horrible, and now he’s supposed to play a nasty, ugly, and frightening villain. I think both of these Count Olaf performances lean a bit too much into the comedic elements of the character, and both of their respective adaptations suffer as a result.
Nevertheless, the quality of the show was always consistent and it was ultimately very faithful to the books. I occasionally consulted my original books while watching episodes, impressed with the show’s reverence for the text and attention to detail. The show seemed to have a lot of confidence in itself, perhaps guided by professionals who wanted to do right by the material, as well as Netflix’s basically unlimited budget and the lack of studio oversight that may have derailed the original Lemony Snicket movie two decades ago.
I ended my piece on His Dark Materials by saying the phrase that I thought summed it up best was “squandered potential.” On reflecting on A Series of Unfortunate Events, even though it concluded airing years ago, I still think about it and what a solid adaptation it ended up being. For that show, I think the phrase I would use is “exceeded expectations.” I also went in with the knowledge that this adaptation is for the same demographic I was when I was reading the books, namely teens and tweens. I for one would be happy to see young people engage with this show, it resonates for much the same reason the books did: it presented the world as a harsh, unrelenting place where good people and positive moments could be thwarted by evil, chance, or even a mixture of both.
So, if you haven’t given it the chance yet, the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events has a lot to offer. No, it isn’t perfect, and yes, some moments and scenes can come off a little clunky. But in the wake of an adaptation of a beloved book series when I was growing up ending up underwhelming, I come back with more appreciation for this show and how it was able to pull off the mostly impossible task of adapting such popular, strange, dark, and quirky material. I hope it serves as a template for how to adapt other popular stories, particularly intended for young people, in the streaming era.