A Series of Unfortunate Events Review

“Lemony Snicket” began his A Series of Unfortunate Events with the warning that if readers enjoy stories with happy endings, they should find something else to read. But this is just a ploy; children love the mischief in doing that which they are not supposed to. As such, most now-adults who grew up in the early 2000’s also grew up with the ever-unfortunate adventures of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire.

Adaptations from page to screen are typically prone to failure. This can be due to a number of reasons: excessive studio involvement, excessive rewrites, poor casting, poor direction, etc., can all lead to a book adaptation that disappoints both fans of the source material and fans of film and television in general. It is my utmost pleasure to report, however, that the Netflix adaptation of Daniel Handler’s (Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym) A Series of Unfortunate Events seems to have suffered none of these problems. On the contrary, it manages a feat once thought impossible: it not only faithfully adapts the original story from one medium to another, but also adds new material to enrich and expand upon a fictional world desperate for further exploration.

While the 2004 feature film with Jim Carrey did its best with what it could, its attempt to adapt the first three books of the series into a single movie left the story feeling rushed. Netflix’s adaptation does the complete opposite, devoting two episodes to each book. This allows each story to develop gradually, and the versatility of screen versus page allows for showing more than just what is going on in the miserable lives of the children Baudelaire.

The story is a very fine depiction of anachronistic gothic, with visuals that nod heavily to the saturated pastels of Wes Anderson. The use of CGI throughout the series is fairly obvious, but rather than being detrimental, it works to the series’ benefit; giving the setting an otherworldly feel, a place that is simultaneously familiar, yet strange. The scene in the first episode in which a crow attacks another bird doesn’t even pretend that it looks real; it’s not supposed to. This is a world in which things are often cartoonish, be it the evil of Count Olaf, the obliviousness of Mr. Poe, the naivety of Uncle Monty, or the cowardice of Aunt Josephine.

The casting is not only impeccable, but also surprisingly diverse. Don’t get me wrong; the cast is still overwhelmingly white, but primary characters such as Mr. Poe and his family (played by K. Todd Freeman, Cleo King, Jack Forrester, and Kaniel Jacob-Cross), Uncle Monty (played by Aasif Maandvi), Aunt Josephine (played by Alfre Woodard), and the hook-handed member of Count Olaf’s theatre troupe (played by Usman Ally) are not. Netflix has a history of creating shows with relatively diverse casts, so this comes as no surprise, but it is nonetheless refreshing to see. Additionally, the actors playing the Baudelaire siblings (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith) genuinely look like children, rather than suspiciously attractive teenagers.

Fans of the books may think they know what they’re in for, but Handler always has another card up his sleeve: in addition to retelling the events of the book series, content has been added to the plot that appears to develop more on VFD, the mysterious organization at the heart of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Without risking spoilers, the book series ended without really giving readers as much information as they (or, at the very least, I) might have wanted on VFD, its members, and its operations. Some of these things may have been expanded upon in Handler’s All the Wrong Questions, a prequel series to A Series of Unfortunate Events that takes place during Lemony Snicket’s adolescence, but I have not yet read those books, as I only learned of their existence while writing this review.

Although some might be tempted to write off this series as another for kids that makes all the adults involved out to be idiots, that is not at all the case for A Series of Unfortunate Events. What sets this apart from shows that do is that the adults aren’t stupid at all; they just simply won’t listen to the Baudelaire children when they attempt to describe the awful, terrible, and deplorable (a word which here means awful and terrible) things and people that actively try to cause them harm. Mr. Poe purports to care about the Baudelaires, but he frequently refuses to believe what they tell him, brushing their evidence of Count Olaf’s treachery off as being products of their “overactive imaginations”. It almost seems like parody how often adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events blatantly disregard what the children tell them in favor of listening to another adult, but this is an unfortunate reality for many children in neglectful and/or abusive situations.

All in all, if you have ever considered yourself a fan of the books, you will probably like this series. It is often as enamouring as it is melancholy, with all the dry wit and wordplay that charmed the hearts of children at elementary school book fairs across throughout the early 2000’s. It’s already been renewed for a second season of ten episodes adapting books five through nine, with the anticipation that season three (though it hasn’t yet been greenlit) will finish up the series. With how good this start has been, I have no doubt in my mind that all three seasons will see completion.

Final note: I would like to thank Daniel Handler personally for officially canonizing Charles and Sir as a gay couple. It’s all I ever wanted.