Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Very Fine Dramatization: Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Malina Weissman, Presley Smith and Louis Hynes star in Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The following contains some spoilers for the first season of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Adaptations of popular and widely beloved stories – especially children's books – are a tough business. And before I begin, let me be clear: I love Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket books. The first of the Baudelaire orphans novels, A Bad Beginning, appeared in 1999 and the thirteenth and final book, The End, was published in 2006. Collected under the name A Series of Unfortunate Events, the novels are credited to "Lemony Snicket" (the books' melancholy narrator and a slowly emerging character in his own right) and tell the ill-fated adventures of a trio of young orphans – Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire – after the untimely death of their parents in a suspicious fire. As the siblings are shuffled from one incompetent guardian to the next, they struggle ably against the machinations of the scheming and larger-than-life Count Olaf, who is intent on gaining control of their parents' fortune.

The Snicket books speak to the innate intelligence of their young readers – their moral intelligence most of all – and, in the tradition of Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, they are as funny as they are exquisitely painful. Telling stories of love and loss, spirit and struggle, and refusing to sidestep moral ambiguity, the novels mirror, with a deliberately Gothic imagery, that dangerous time between childhood and maturity as the world beyond your parents' sheltering love reveals itself. In short, there is more moral realism in a single Lemony Snicket novel than in all the Twilight books put together – and I am thrilled to be able to say that the television adaptation (which premiered on Netflix earlier this month) not only does its source material justice but will appeal to all ages, whether you've read the books or not.

I have been awaiting the arrival of the Netflix series with excitement and no small degree of trepidation, because this is not the first time the Snicket books have adapted for the screen. In 2004, a feature film adaptation, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events – starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf and Emily Browning as Violet Baudelaire – was released. The film attempted to compress the action of the first three novels into one 107-minute story,  and the result was as underwhelming as Carrey's scenery chewing was overwhelming. Though that ill-fated project began with a screenplay by Handler himself and cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld behind the camera, Sonnenfeld was eventually replaced as director and Handler's original script got re-worked so much that the author didn't even get a screen credit for it. What the 2004 film might have looked like with Handler's words and Sonnenfeld's eye we can never know, but with this new series – with Handler leading the writing team and Barry Sonnenfeld on board as show runner – we've been given the next best thing.

Malina Weissman and Neil Patrick Harris in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The first good choice the series makes is structural: the eight-episode season is actually more accurately four stories, with each of the first four novels given a two-episode arc. (This delineation is also cleverly marked by a new title sequence for each and a shifting opening theme song sung by series star Neil Patrick Harris.) Ironically, this decision allows the series to feel simultaneously more cinematic and more televisual than other recent Netflix fare which, in this era of binge-watching, has often foregone basic principles of episodic storytelling for a "13-hour motion picture." With Unfortunate Events, however, we are given the satisfaction of four well-told stories – each with a beginning, middle, and end – as well as a season-length story with its own dramatic punctuation. The show also looks beautiful: the action takes place in a storybook universe, with muted and selectively brightened colours and pop-up-book backgrounds, strongly reminiscent of Sonnenfeld's work on Bryan's Fuller's Pushing Daisies (ABC, 2007-2009).

The omnipresent and baritone-voiced Patrick Warburton offers his deadpan best as Lemony Snicket himself, who narrates each episode with a detached compassion that gives the story the right balance of bedtime story and object lesson. Most importantly, the young (and age-appropriate!) actors are uniformly strong – with Malina Weissman as the 14-year-old inventor Violet, newcomer Louis Hynes as the bookish 12-year-old Klaus, and even a fully credited Presley Smith as the uncannily expressive infant sister, Sunny. Harris plays the villainous Count Olaf, who, due in large part to the actor's vitality, emerges as suitably (and in equal parts) ridiculous and terrifying. This first season gives Olaf more orphan-free scenes and therefore more backstory than the early novels do, and the result is a more nuanced – and thereby even more dangerous – character than the monobrow, cartoonishly receding hairline and prosthetic nose would imply. Each of the four stories also offers the series ample opportunity for guest actors, with Joan Cusack showing up as the terminally trusting Justice Strauss, Aasif Mandvi as the jovial but clueless "Uncle Monty" Montgomery, Alfre Woodard as the phobic, grammar-obsessed Aunt Josephine, and Catherine O'Hara as the evil optometrist Georgina Orwell. A special mention also goes to Usman Ally, who, as Olaf's main henchperson the Hook-Handed Man, is a malevolent, scene-stealing delight.

The teleplays display respect but not reverence for the source material, thankfully avoiding scene-for-scene recreations of the novel while still remaining largely faithful to the unflinching darkness of the books. Often the tweaks are more about character than plot – as with Uncle Monty, who is both kinder and less oblivious on screen than in the books; and Aunt Josephine, who temporarily regains her spine on screen, but in the books remains forthrightly cowardly until her dark, watery end. And some of the more subtle additions are quite wonderful in themselves. The novels are singular in the self-conscious storytelling of the narrator (on screen, that self-awareness extends to a few not-so-subtle winks about network executives and the pleasures of long-form storytelling and streaming television), but the three children are not themselves as literary-minded as Snicket himself. Those familiar with Klaus and Violet from the book series would be surprised to hear them quote casually from Proust, Murakami and Fitzgerald as their screen counterparts do (though these moments, including the inclusion of an exceptionally literate cabbie in the "Wide Window" episodes, will be familiar to readers of Handler's Unfortunate Events prequel series, All the Wrong Questions).

The series also introduces a few entirely capable (read: brave, kind and competent) adults early on, none of whom makes a direct appearance in the books. These are Mr. Poe's secretary Jacqueline (her actual identity is likely obvious to readers of the book series – hint: in the books, Lemony has a brother named Jacques) played with kick-ass style by Canadian actress Sara Canning, and two characters played with equal super-spy panache by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders (whose characters the credits "helpfully" refer to as Father and Mother). While the presence of these three undercuts the general sense of adult incompetence of the books – though only Jacqueline ever shares a scene, quite briefly, with the Baudelaires – it also gives viewers an early glimpse into the larger intrigue at work behind the children's misfortune. No doubt, this decision to introduce the V.F.D./secret society plotline at the outset will be controversial to many Snicket readers, but its background narrative ultimately helps hold the season together until its powerful conclusion.

With A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix has already given us the first television gem of 2017, a phrase which here means "Watch it."

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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