A Series of Unfortunate Events began as a thirteen-part book series that many children, myself included, loved and grew up on, reading each new instalment with enthusiasm as it came out. Since then, the story of the Baudelaire orphans has been adapted into a film and most recently, a Netflix series. The series follows the lives of Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny after their parents perish in a mysterious fire. To survive, they must repeatedly escape the clutches of the villainous Count Olaf who is after their large inheritance, and uncover the secrets surrounding their parents that they were never told.
The film adaptation starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf was well-received by existing fans of the books and newcomers to the story alike, yet a sequel was never made. To anyone already familiar with the Baudelaires’ story, regardless of how enjoyable it was, the film was undeniably lacking many of the things that made the books so appealing. This is only to be expected when three books of a series of thirteen are crammed into a two hour movie, but the TV adaptation has far fewer restrictions in terms of its ability to accurately depict the story Snicket readers love.
Netflix’s version is in no rush to skip any detail. The series moves at its own pace, splitting each book into two parts. The first series was 8 episodes long, concluding with The Miserable Mill: Part 2 and plans are already underway to continue with a second series, the start of which was set up at the end of the last episode. While the format of series 1 seemed slightly repetitive as the children would escape Count Olaf only for him to show up again in a new disguise, series 2 is poised to continue with the story as it diverges from this formula and starts to get into the real nitty-gritty of the Baudelaire mystery.
The casting is nothing short of excellent. Violet is as perfectly portrayed by 13 year old Malina Weissman as she was by Emily Browning in the film (the two aren’t exactly dissimilar in terms of looks, either). Louis Hynes’ Klaus is more accurate than his movie counterpart as this time his glasses weren’t forgone, and Sunny… well, it would be pretty hard to badly cast Sunny. A baby is a baby, after all.
One of the best decisions made in adapting the books to TV, in my opinion, was the choice to have writer/narrator/character Lemony Snicket as an on-screen presence, in the form of Patrick Warburton. Warburton’s Snicket hits the nail on the head and is one of the best features of the show in terms of how well it represents the source material. Aside from the fact that a lot of his dialogue in particular consists of direct quotes from the books, he sets the perfect tone with his sombre manner and deadpan delivery.
One of the biggest talking points surrounding the new series is the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Comparisons between his Olaf and Jim Carrey’s in the movie are unavoidable, and though both have their merits, Harris has to come out on top. Carrey’s Olaf was outlandish, bordering on ridiculous, so much so that it was impossible to take him seriously as a truly threatening villain. The film was also largely focused around him, in the way that any film featuring Jim Carrey tends to be, whereas the Netflix series steps back from Olaf a little, allowing more room for the focus to be on the Baudelaires themselves. Harris’ Count is undeniably also theatrical and slightly camp at times (at first his mannerisms are rather reminiscent of NPH’s Barney from How I Met Your Mother), but he quickly settles into a more devilish and menacing persona. The contrast between the ridiculous disguises and the dastardly villain beneath them is extremely effective, and where Carrey made it difficult to see Olaf as dark and scheming, Harris pulls off his nefarious nature.
Visually speaking, the show is unlike anything else currently on TV. A combination of CGI and beautifully designed sets and costumes create a world rich with detail that’s a cross between the gothic, and the type of wacky whimsy one might associate with Willy Wonka. The Baudelaires never stay in one place for long, so at surface level we get to experience new settings every couple of episodes, while still maintaining the overall melancholy, idiosyncratic feel. This is mirrored in the show’s theme song (vocals by none other than Count Olaf himself), where the recurring hook of “look away,” never changes, but other lyrics are altered to fit the story that particular pair of episodes tells.
Netflix’s version of the tale outdoes its film predecessor and perfectly captures the feel and tone of the books that started it all. The embrace of storytelling in long form like this allows much more room to incorporate the things like running jokes centred around language, wordplay, and blatant fourth wall breaking that make this self-aware story successful. It even goes above and beyond expectations, as overarching plots never fully explained in the books (and discarded almost entirely from the movie) are finally fleshed out on screen, with gaps being filled and minor details embellished in a way that enriches the experience even more, complete with easter eggs and offhand references.
Despite its grim theme that bad things sometimes happen to good people for no good reason, the series is appealing to adults and children alike. Refusing to baby the audience, it inspires messages of resourcefulness, perseverance, and the importance of never underestimating the intelligence of a perceptive child among an array of oblivious adults. It’s vibrant and comical in some places, and subtle, intelligent, and downright unsettling in others, and it’s difficult to say whether this show would be perceived in such a favourable light by those completely new to the franchise. However, as an avid fan of the books, I have to praise Netflix’s portrayal of the Baudelaires’ bad luck for being a Virtually Flawless Depiction of a Series of Unfortunate Events.