Netflix’s serial adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events has launched to critical acclaim, but does it live up to the hype and do the books justice?
“For Beatrice – my love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not.”
It’s hard to believe it’s been over ten years since the last of the Series of Unfortunate Events books was published, and even longer since the film adaptation of the first three books hit cinemas. It’s a clever move by Netflix to pick a series that lines up so perfectly age-wise with the childhood nostalgia of their primary audience, yet another canny success in a long line for the streaming service. But how long has it been since much of the viewership last actually picked up one of these books?
I remember eagerly awaiting the release of every book from The Hostile Hospital onwards until The End, and what may be surprising is that the release dates and lengths of the books dramatically slow down as Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) slowly deviated from the established formula. The first eight books were published over two years (which is mad!), and the latter five over FIVE years.
The television adaptation has the advantage of a much clearer vision from the word ‘go’ and is simultaneously slavishly loyal to the books and unafraid to deviate. Narration and dialogue are lifted almost word-for-word and scenes re-created with precision while at the same time entirely new major plot points are dropped far earlier than they ever appeared in the novels with mixed results. When A Series of Unfortunate Events works well though, as it does most of the time, it’s a smashing success.
Take the opening adaptation of “A Bad Beginning” for instance. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot of the series, the books follow the Baudelaire Orphans who are placed in the care of the evil Count Olaf when their parents die in a mysterious fire. Each book sees Olaf returning with a new plot to seize control of the children and their substantial inheritance, usually with the aid of his theatrical troupe and some goofy disguises.
Where the film made the error of breaking the novel up, the TV series delivers its entire plot intact in a sitting of nearly two hours on its own. It’s the longest of the four parts by nearly half an hour, but has the advantage of coming first and introducing the series’ wonderful cast and characters. It’s immediately clear from the dark humour, integrated narration and visual display of muted colours that the show’s creators know exactly what kind of tone they’re going for, and it’s hella enjoyable.
And the core group are FANTASTIC. Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf is more sinister and grounded than Jim Carrey’s take, and it’s far better at capturing the gloomy Victorian atmosphere of the first book. Older Baudelaire siblings Violet and Klaus are note-perfect and work consistently and in harmony through the entire run of episodes, a mean feat for two unknown child actors. While baby Sunny Baudelaire isn’t as cheeky or lively as she is in the source material, the show wisely opts to play up how adorable and funny she is instead, a much wiser choice for the screen.
K. Todd Freeman pops in regularly as the clueless executor of the Baudelaire estate Mr. Poe and plays the character a great combination of well wishing and total incompetence. But the real underrated standout has to be Patrick Warburton as narrator Lemony Snicket. Every single bit of narration is delivered with gravity and good humour, and most importantly without ever breaking the narrative flow. Bizarrely, the narrator seems to work almost even better than he does in the books, a feat rarely accomplished if ever on screen.
As the series moves into the other adaptations and the formula becomes established, the few issues with the show become more apparent. The major additions of spy and secretary Jacqueline, and of the jail-breaking red herring Quagmire Parents fail to amount to anything in this first season of the show, and that’s because there’s no role for them to fill at this point in the adaptation. The Parents in particular are an annoying tease that really aren’t in the spirit of a series that liked to warn the reader in advance before something bad happened, and while the scene on the ship with Jacqueline and Olaf is great fun, her appearance in the maze felt totally off.
It’s indicative of the series’ great flaw – to sometimes push the humour and quirkiness a bit far. The first part of “The Wide Window” is by far the weakest episode of the series, and not just because the book has the least material out of the four. Part of the fun of the series is anticipating how Olaf and his troupe will re-appear, and as great as Neil Patrick Harris is, having him appear prior to donning his disguise in “The Wide Window” and “The Miserable Mill” knocks some of the wind out of the sails.
Stephano is especially hilarious, delivering some of the best lines in “The Reptile Room”, and it feels so underwhelming to have to wait so long for Captain Sham and Shirley. It wouldn’t be so much of an issue if Alfre Woodard’s Aunt Josephine was so disappointingly hammy – though admittedly her final moments in the second half of “The Wide Window” are a real improvement. Similarly, Uncle Monty doesn’t feel as quite warm and welcoming as Billy Connolly did, but the weird pacing in the first part of “The Reptile Room” is a big factor in his characterisation rather than Aasif Mandvi’s great performance.
Thankfully, the final instalment of “The Miserable Mill” is perhaps the best of the lot. Rhys Darby is wonderfully inept and timid as silent partner Charles and Catherine O’Hara a brilliant foil to Olaf as scheming optometrist Dr. Georgina Orwell. It benefits from feeling fresher than the previous books, and from not bringing the entirety of Olaf’s troupe along for once, a move that is great fun in “The Reptile Room” but hampers “The Wide Window”.
And I’d be remiss in not mentioning the show-stealing opening theme, the campy ‘It’s the Count’ in the first episode, and the transcendent musical number that wraps up the last episode. The season’s ending perfectly captures what makes this series so great – a raucous passionate desire to entertain and love for these books. Maybe the first eight books are rushed and formulaic, but who cares when this adaptation so clearly loves them and wants to engross the viewer in their wacky gloomy world? A Series of Unfortunate Events is so evidently a labour of love, and so utterly entertaining, it’s hard not to give fans the most passionate of recommendations.
Score: An inordinate number of stars out of five.
Written by Tom Besley