Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: A Franchise Look
I always knew A Series of Unfortunate Events had a big fan base, enough to garner a failed film adaptation and a more successful Netflix series (by the same producer). My daughter, who is 10, and I were looking for audiobooks to listen to while in the car as she was getting more and more into fiction. I made this suggestion and added that, after every book, we would watch the corresponding episodes from the Netflix adaptation. I’d also throw in the film adaptation at some point, though I hadn’t seen it since it had first come out and remember being moderately disappointed in its narrative albeit never having read the series at that point.
Now that I have, I have to say I’m supremely disappointed I hadn’t gotten to these sooner. Despite having gone through this with my daughter, I found myself more engaged and interested in pushing through them than she was (I think her attention started to wane in the last few books). These books are fantastically written, witty, clever, and equally good as books for (slightly older) kids and adults. The style is educational and absurdist, realistic and fantastical. The story and the characters are engaging, frustrating, and deeply poetic and meaningful in ways kids and adults will understand on completely different levels.
If you don’t know, the general idea of the series is this: 14-year-old Violet (who is an inventor), 12-year-old Klaus (who is a reader/researcher), and baby Sunny (who bites things) Baudelaire are orphaned one morning when they discover, via a banker named Mr. Poe, that their parents have died in a terrible fire that also destroys their home. Mr. Poe is a well-meaning though highly incompetent man who ends up placing them with Count Olaf, a vile villain and wannabe actor who is out to get the Baudelaire fortune at any means necessary along with his dastardly acting troupe. Of course things don’t go as planned, and the Baudelaire’s—for various reasons—end up bouncing from one guardian to the next while Olaf and his henchmen dress up in various disguises to get a hold of them to obtain the fortune. Along the way, the kids discover there’s far more going on than they thought, including a mysterious sugar bowl and a secret society known as V.F.D. that enshrouds their history—a phrase that here means follows them wherever they go and pops up connected to everyone they’ve ever known, including their parents (the vocabulary usage of this book is fantastic, and the “a word/phrase that here means…” is done a lot). The narrator, a man named Lemony Snicket, is also deeply connected to the story, which turns out to be far more personal than you can imagine when starting the story.
There are 13 books overall, and every book has 13 chapters (except the last one, which has 14—acting as a kind of epilogue). The Netflix show has 3 seasons, and every book is adapted into 2 episodes (except the last one, which is only 1). The movie is an adaptation of the first 3 books. The first 6 books are the guardian-bouncing while the next 6 delve deeper into the mysteries of V.F.D. and get much darker. The last book, well… I’ll get there, and to my other thoughts on the books, shortly.
There are plenty of themes in this series. Each book has its own, more obvious themes, but there are other themes that carry throughout the series, as well. I love the idea that everything is cyclical, that everything these kids are facing have been faced similarly by others before (which is really brought forth in the last book). I love the notion that these kids are going through a version of what their parents went through, in a way, and that they also must make hard decisions that could take them on either side of the schism—an event that split V.F.D. into two factions. But also, I like that everything is not black and white. It’s not just the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, but everything operates in shades of gray, which is perfectly set up from the first scene of the first book and the gray, overcast day at the beach. The good guys can often do bad things, as well, as even the Baudelaire’s themselves are faced with and have to come to terms with. In fact, I could argue that Mr. Poe is the worst villain in the series, and he’s supposed to be one of the good guys. But the fact that he—along with practically every other adult in the franchise—ignorantly refuse to listen to or believe the kids is a theme followed throughout that often ends up in death (or other bad things happening) and the kids being put in further peril.
This is a dark series. There is death. There is destruction. There are maniacal plots. It isn’t graphic or bloody or anything, but bad things do happen, and as Lemony Snicket says at the beginning of the first and really every book, there really isn’t a happy ending—for the characters or the reader. Just like the kids get frustrated throughout the series by never finding out answers and being constantly provided with more questions and mystery, there is a lot left open and unanswered at the end of these books. There are a lot of storylines that aren’t completed and characters you simply don’t know the fates of, which was done on purpose. Life doesn’t always give you answers, and as the final book says, it’s not really the end of their story, as most of life is in media res, so it isn’t going to wrap up all nice and neat. This will probably frustrate a lot of people, though there are ways to get a few more answers. A somewhat follow-up, The Beatrice Letters, supposedly gives more information (I have yet to read it). The Netflix series also gives more answers than the books, though not extensively.
And that brings me to the show. I don’t want to dwell on the show too much, but it probably will be the best adaptation we are going to get of this franchise. It definitely does have its problems as an adaptation, but overall it really works, and it works well. Every character was cast very well, and the performances were spot on. Everyone gets their time to shine, including (no pun intended) Sunny, who is just a baby/toddler throughout the show, and even gives one of the biggest emotional moments of the series (without spoiling too much—a moment in Slippery Slope when Violet asks about how Sunny might escape her current predicament, and she responds in a way not in the book, and it was done so well).
The adults were the overall biggest change from the books—general personality changes or just overall making them more ridiculous or over-the-top. Sometimes this worked well while other times it ruined the character. Mr. Poe was added to far more scenes and episodes than he appears in the books, especially in the second half. And he’s far sillier and more incompetent in the show than he is in the books; he’s more comic relief in the show, but at the detriment of the kids, and it plays up his unintentional villainy just by being an overall incompetent idiot. Other characters, like Monte, Jerome, or Hector, are treated differently in their book variation and are far more likeable (particularly Hector). Then there’s the acting troupe, who are given more personality and even some depth, particularly the Hook-Handed Man, which was quite welcome. I really enjoyed how they handled the Hook-Handed Man in the show, as it made him an even stronger and better character than the book.
There were new characters the books don’t have at all (or extensions of characters to give more depth), such as Jacqueline, Jacques, Larry Your-Waiter, and Olivia. These were all added or extended in order to give more depth and overall connection to V.F.D. My daughter and I had fun listening to the books and then guessing if, in particular, a specific character would end up being Larry Your-Waiter in the show (we were usually right). I felt the show also handled Jacques well, extending his character to make his moment in the book work even better (it helped he was played by Nathan Fillion). Similarly, Olivia was a good addition to the show that shocked me when I realized what the show was doing in conjunction to the book—and it worked even better for it, even though that character ended up changed altogether.
And then there’s Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) and Lemony (Patrick Warburton). Warburton is practically perfect casting as Snicket, and his meta monologues throughout the show were a great way to incorporate his narration. His delivery and mannerisms gave that perfect wit, dryness, and sadness necessary for the role. NPH was also a good choice for Olaf, at least in the continuation of the Jim Carrey version from the film. See, the book Olaf is quite evil. He’s not really the humorous oaf he’s portrayed to be on screen. There is no sense of silliness, really, in the book version. NPH plays him as kind of an idiot with an evil streak who you’re not quite sure how he made it this far. He’s also given slightly more of a haunted past that is hinted at in the books but fleshed out a bit more in the show. In short, I think both iterations work. While NPH isn’t the cold-hearted devil of the book, he’s still Olaf, and it works in a way that humanizes him a little more than I think he comes off in the books.
The show gives a bit more information than the books, too, filling in a few blanks where there might have only been hints (or nothing at all), and it is very welcome. I feel these additions work so well that I consider them canon, even if the author only worked with the show for the first two seasons. In short, the books and show are quite different from each other and embrace a lot of changes and differences, and when they work, they really work, but even if they don’t there’s still the book version. There is also the idea of the spyglass, something that’s not in the books at all, but it was also a part of the film version.
So let’s quickly get into the film adaptation. This will be short. It’s horrible. It is a horrible adaptation that changes absolutely everything and tries to fit three books into one shorter runtime. It removes all character development and only includes important bits to move the story forward, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense without the build-up. Even surface-level, Klaus doesn’t wear glasses in the film (which is hugely important in the books). Violet has her hair braided (which she can’t do in the books). Sunny is practically CGI the majority of the time and not even close to as endearing as her Netflix counterpart. Mr. Poe doesn’t have his signature cough (or, really, do much of anything). Jim Carrey’s Olaf is basically just Carrey hamming it up, although I have to give it that he is more sinister than NPH to a degree. The “eye” symbol/tattoo cannot possibly look like it needs to in order to work for the rest of the series. The biggest scene in the film (the train scene) is not in the books and makes no sense in the context of the character. And every other adult character just isn’t given enough time to be cared about, although the cast is pretty great (and Catherine O’Hara showing up in both film and Netflix versions, although different characters, is fun).
That being said, the point of this review is to not give a blow-by-blow of our likes and dislikes of every book and episode but rather a general overview of the franchise as a whole. So I just want to give some overall thoughts here:
Many people complain that the general conceit and formula of the franchise starts to wear thin after a while until the second half of the series, and I can see that to a degree. The first 6 books definitely have a formula to them and follow them pretty specifically: Mr. Poe drops the kids off at a new guardian; kids try to adjust to a strange new life; Olaf eventually shows up in disguise and nobody believes the kids who always immediately recognize him; Mr. Poe shows up to debate the situation; some horrible or unfortunate event occurs; Mr. Poe takes them away.
The first two books are quite strong. The first one sets up everything, including the darker tone (though it does get far, far darker and more mysterious). The second book is actually one of the strongest and was a favorite for quite some time. Uncle Monte is a great character, and the whole setting of his house and the Reptile Room is fun. It’s also good to see the first real attempt at the kids working together to solve the problem of Olaf.
Books 3-5 aren’t bad, per se, but they aren’t my favorite. The Miserable Mill (book 4) is one of the lesser books (and has some of the crazier moments, like battling a sword with teeth). But overall, my lesser thoughts on these books could be, in part, due to the audiobook versions. While the first two books (and 6-13) are all wonderfully narrated by the incredibly talented Tim Curry (who seriously is a joy to listen to here), books 3-5, for some reason, are narrated by Daniel Handler, the real name of the author of the books (as Lemony Snicket is a character). Handler’s narration is often too quiet and dull and is almost painful to listen to. There’s no real emotion, no real attempt at character voices (with a few notable exceptions), and it’s sad that the author’s reading of his own material is so uninteresting to listen to. The Austere Academy in particular could have benefited from better narration, as I feel it was a better book than Handler presented. It was a welcome return when Curry comes back for book 6, which is coincidentally one of my favorites.
The Ersatz Elevator was both a fun book and a fun set of episodes for the show. It introduces Jerome and, more importantly, Esme Squalor and things that are “In” or “Out,” fashionably. This is also the book that really starts to turn the series in another direction. The Vile Village is a mixed bag, as some things work better in the book (Hector, the overall mystery), but the show really expands on some things (the village itself, Jacques, and Olaf). The Hostile Hospital was a decent book and a fun adaptation, turning it more into a creepy hospital-type horror story. The Carnivorous Carnival, on the other hand, had some good twists in both versions I didn’t see coming.
The Slippery Slope also introduced another twist I didn’t see coming (my daughter actually figured it out first), and brought in/back a couple characters to change up the dynamics of both the kids and Olaf’s sides. This is further explored in The Grim Grotto, which gives us one of my saddest adaptation exclusions: Captain Widdershins is a big part of the book and is completely removed from the show.
And then there’s The Penultimate Peril, another one of my favorites of the series, if not my favorite. It brings together almost all the other books and finally shows us why everything leading up to now was important. It doesn’t necessarily answer all our questions, but it does tie everything together. It’s also fun as a librarian, since the Hotel Denouement works like the Dewey Decimal System. It was a minor disappointment as an adaptation, as multiple characters were cut or replaced, and it wasn’t as big of a wrap-up as the book (particularly the exclusion of Sir and Charles).
That brings us to The End—the most controversial of the books, because, well… nothing really happens. Without giving away any spoilers, let me put it this way: for 12 books, we have followed the pain and misery of these children, knowing it wouldn’t end well. They stumble upon this mystery that keeps taking them further down a rabbit hole of questions, and every time they get close to an answer, it slips away. And then it’s the final book, and it pushes everything aside. Nothing really happens for most of the book, there’s a kind of climax, the Olaf story at least superficially wraps up, and then it just kinda ends. It would be like getting through Order of the Phoenix in Harry Potter, and just before you get to Half-Blood Prince and learn all that backstory, they jump to that part in Deathly Hallows where they’re stranded in the woods (but you don’t know about Horcruxes), they end up at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house, and that’s the majority of the book, and then Voldemort attacks Hogwarts, but the Trio leave to go do something else, somebody else faces Voldemort, there’s some vague comments made, the book ends, and then that epilogue where they’re older.
Like I said, I understand what he’s doing thematically and narratively, but as entertainment, I’m not entirely sure it works, especially for books geared toward kids. I understand having some unanswered questions, but for practically every mystery or character arc to be left unsolved (or be left with only hints) is a bit much. But where the book might fall short as an ending, the series does fill in some blanks (and I believe plugs in some Beatrice Letters bits). It also alters the ending a bit to make it a slightly happier ending than the overall ambiguous one of the book.
Though in retrospect, was everything left unanswered? If everything is cyclical, and this story is simply the same as their parents, do we not actually have all the answers? It’s all there, throughout the story–the kids described as behaving just like the parents in their subtleties; the rotating Lulu’s; the fact that deja vu is brought up numerous times or that explanations are repeated constantly. All we have to do is follow the lives of the Baudelaire’s and Quagmire’s to understand exactly what happened with the Baudelaire parents and the Snicket’s (and vice versa). They’re mirror stories, and they fill in the blanks for each other. It isn’t spoon fed to you, but you can more or less figure it out if you think about it for a while.
Honestly, the strangest part of the adaptation is in how they chose to do it. Unlike every other book in the series, it is only one episode long rather than two. At first, while going through the book, I thought I understood why this was done. It didn’t seem a heck of a lot happens in the story, at least comparatively. But as we watched the episode, so much of it felt rushed and different, like something that would have appeared in the film version rather than the show, including how the overall antagonist of the story was quite different. Also, a particular returning character feels almost like a Deus Ex Machina to be used in one scene even though he had returned earlier in the book. And the big reveals that are in the story were not given the time to breath or sink in like they needed. However, the handling of Olaf’s story conclusion was done well, and I’m glad they allowed it to be serious and not silly. NPH did well (and some flashbacks in earlier episodes helped with one particular moment that would otherwise come out of nowhere, as it does in the book).
To wrap this up, I want to talk about Lemony Snicket himself. He begins as a mysterious narrator, documenting the lives of these orphans and the unfortunate events to follow the deaths of their parents. But the more you learn about him, the more you realize how tragic of a character he really is and why, exactly, he’s documenting this story. To give yet another Potter comparison, he’s essentially the Snape of the story (more or less) trying to make amends for his past crimes in the name of lost love. And as his story develops in the background and through little details here and there, you realize that, just like everyone else—including the Baudelaire’s—he’s not perfect and has done some bad things he regrets, but he’s trying to do right. And to have that be the character that is chronicling this story is a fantastic move and one of my favorite things in the story.
So while this isn’t a perfect series (in any medium), it is still fantastic and so well done on the whole. Even if you’re an adult, I cannot recommend these books enough, as they work for adults just as well as kids due to maturity of the writing. I imagine this is because Handler first imagined this as a story for adults, and when he was asked to write a series for children, he pitched this, thinking it would be laughed off, but they loved it. So he ended up adapting a more adult narrative to be more kid friendly, and it just makes it this absurd world that I would totally want to get into again.
Side-Note: If you want to read the books for the first time without being spoiled, I suggest not doing what we did and watch the episodes after each book. Many of the later books are spoiled by the preceding episodes. For example, events or characters that might not be introduced until one book could be revealed or introduced 1 or more episodes ahead of time to start setting things up early.