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Lemony Snicket's classic series gets the adaptation it deserves
At its peak, A Series of Unfortunate Events, the series of books written by Daniel Handler in character as Lemony Snicket, was second in popularity to only Harry Potter among young adult readers (and not-so-young adult readers). The series spanned 13 novels, with the first book published in 1999 and the last in 2006. In 2004, it got its inevitable movie adaptation, with Jim Carrey starring as the evil Count Olaf, who makes the already miserable lives of the Baudelaire orphans even worse with his schemes to get his hands on the fortune they inherited after their parents died.
The movie was well-received and turned a profit. It won an Oscar for Best Makeup. Meryl Streep was in it, and Jude Law narrated it as Lemony Snicket. It condensed and accelerated the pace of the books, but it was a faithful adaptation that for the most part was true in spirit to the pages. It had the right Edward Gorey-via-steampunk look that captured the feeling that the story could be taking place in Victorian England or coastal New England in the 1930s. It was funny and Jim Carrey did a good job of making Count Olaf half-silly and half-menacing. It was supposed to turn into a franchise, but a sequel never panned out.
The thing is, the movie had a troubled path to the screen. Mega-produer Scott Rudin set up the production and Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld was supposed to direct from a screenplay written by Handler. But Rudin left the project after budget disputes with the studio, and Sonnenfeld left shortly after that. Brad Silberling took over the director's chair, and Handler's script was rewritten by Robert Gordon, who is the credited screenwriter on the movie. The movie, as solid as it is, is not the real Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events.
It seems like the possibility of what could have been has gnawed at Handler and Sonnenfeld for more than a decade, because they are back with a TV version at Netflix. Handler and Sonnenfeld are both executive producers. Handler is overseeing the scripts; Sonnenfeld is doing much of the directing. And they're making the true Series of Unfortunate Events, which is an adaptation faithful in tone and content.
The thing the movie got wrong was Lemony Snicket's tone. The books are filled with the narrator's morose digressions and word-defining asides. The language and style are such a huge part of the books' success that they're necessary in a screen adaptation, but so writerly that they're a huge challenge to show. The movie didn't try hard enough, and Jude Law wasn't right for the part. He was too soft and too serious, and he only appeared in voiceover.
The show has righted this mistake and then some with Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. Warburton, best known for his clueless characters like the titular hero from The Tick and Seinfeld's David Puddy, is perfectly cast against type as the erudite Snicket. His deep, resonant voice conveys solemnity, but there's something in it that ironically undercuts his seriousness. He's world-wearily authoritative, but in a way that oh-so-subtly suggests it's totally ridiculous to be so world-weary and authoritative. He nails the tone of Handler-as-Snicket marvelously well.
Best of all, the words he's saying are Snicket's words. The best part of the books is the clever, self-referential narration, which somehow made it to the show intact, a word which here means "uncompromised and often taken verbatim from the page."
Beyond the style of the narration, though, is the intent. The books are written for kids in a way that respects young readers' intelligence. The over-explanation of words is a winking joke like "I know you know what this means." It's tough to pull off, but Handler manages it again on the show. The result is a series for families that parents and preteens can both feel good about. If it were a movie, it would be a hard PG.
The longer timeframe afforded by TV allows for the series to be a more faithful adaptation in plot, too. The first season consists of eight episodes covering the first four books, with each book covered in two episodes. There are some big plot changes from the books to the show, one of which in particular will really surprise fans. But the broad strokes have been ported over, and the changes don't weaken anything.
The rest of the cast is strong, too. Louis Hynes and Malina Weissman are a better Klaus and Violet Baudelaire than Liam Aiken and Emily Browning; however, weirdly, baby Sunny was better executed in the movie. Neil Patrick Harris, who takes over Count Olaf, also strikes a deft balance of silly and menacing.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a very worthwhile reboot, one that we didn't even necessarily know we were missing. It's laugh-out-loud funny, delightful to look at (Uncle Monty's Reptile Room is magical) and treats kids like it knows they're smart, a word which here means "as capable of appreciating wordplay and a dark sense of humor as any grown-up."
A Series of Unfortunate Events premieres Friday, Jan. 13 on Netflix.