A Series of Unfortunate Events - Review
The first thing you’ll notice is that no, A Series of Unfortunate Events is not a video game. I mean there was a video game based on the 2004 Jim Carrey film, but today we take a step in our review world to something different. A Series of Unfortunate Events is perhaps my favorite series of books. The only thing that really has ever competed for its love in my mind is Harry Potter, and the fact is that there was more success behind the Harry Potter movie than the movie based on the Lemony Snicket series. But Netflix brought back the series in early 2017 with an 8 episode first season.
The thing about the Series of Unfortunate Events is that the books are dark, but they are also riddled with humor in ways you don’t often see in children’s narratives. Kids aren’t often exposed to the dark nature of the villain of Count Olaf, even Voldemort isn’t as vile a character as Count Olaf can be, and only Dolores Umbridge could really ever compete with the vitriol I felt as a child for Count Olaf. But the thing about Count Olaf is he is also a bumbling buffoon. The greatest thing about the Series of Unfortunate Events was its ability to not treat children like children and often the main characters were smarter than the adults around them.
This is seen from the very beginning. The second Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are left on the doorstep of Count Olaf by Mr. Poe they know he is a bad character. The first two episodes of the show revolve around the first book of the series, The Bad Beginning. The Bad Beginning serves as the entrance to the series and is one of the best world character building stories. It was the frame for the movie based on the books, but that failed in some ways because it attempted to present three separate novels as one movie. The show devoted two episodes to each story, which ultimately works out to about a regular length movie over the two-episode ark.
The first two episodes build the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only do we meet the main four characters, but we are introduced to Count Olaf’s henchpersons. Those are some of the few characters we see throughout the novels. At times they are evil, and at times they are shown as tame to Count Olaf’s evil. This is seen throughout the first two episodes as often Count Olaf will berate the orphans, which here is a word that means Violet, Klaus and Sunny, while his henchpersons will watch on in an alarming nature. It also introduces the real bumbling buffoon of the series Mr. Poe.
Mr. Poe is almost as much a villain throughout the series as Count Olaf. He is not an evil person; he is just inadequate at finding the children a safe place to live. He also fails to listen as the children easily figure out Count Olaf’s disguises throughout the series as in each of the first 10 novels he attempts to be someone else to throw off the authorities. That said Mr. Poe is not the only adult to fail to listen to the kids, he is just one of many who fails to see the evil nature of the world that the kids are lived in.
The person who most fails in the first book is Justice Strauss. Justice Strauss is a neighbor to Count Olaf who has a library and often in the first book helps the kids, but fails to see the suffering they go through until the end. Justice Strauss is played by Joan Cusack in one of the real big actors seen in the first few episodes. Besides Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf she is the biggest actor in the first two books. And both of them give fitting performances.
The first two episodes really serve as a getting used to the main four actors. Louis Hynes plays Klaus Baudelaire, Malina Weismann plays Violet Baudelaire, and Presley Smith plays the young Sunny Baudelaire. They all play the kids very well but at first it is a jarring notion that there are new actors playing the characters, especially for those of us who have seen the original movie. Much like Neil Patrick Harris differing from Jim Carrey. That said the intricacies that the actors prove able to do make them as good if not better than the previous actors. Beyond that each of them really follows the mannerisms and nature that the characters are known for in the series, both on film and in the novels.
As a whole the first two episodes are fun to watch, well-paced, and have nice calls to things in future episodes and hints towards future events that book readers will understand and don’t detract from the episode at hand. With 5 of the 8 episodes written by the man behind Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler, it can be expected that most everything written in the script and acted on the screen are what the author intended.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the changes made from the book is that it adds to the world that the Series of Unfortunate Events create. Most notably it shows how Count Olaf comes to be the first guardian rather than the more fitting Uncle Monty or Aunt Josephine, and it presents a side along script of a mother and father attempting to get back to their children.
As the first book comes to the end the biggest thing that is noticed is the use of the actual story from the book to end the first movie rather than the portmanteau of the first three books that the movie opted for. This is scene in the episode using Violet’s wit to get out of the fake marriage sham put together by Count Olaf, rather than Klaus going and finding a way to null the marriage through the intricate fire contraption. Of course as there are no happy endings in the series as soon as the world and Mr. Poe finds out they have been duped by Count Olaf, Count Olaf and his troupe disappear. The episode also shows how with tunnels underneath seemingly connecting the homes of every main character and more to come if you have read the books.
The end of the second episode also works to set up the beginning of the second book, and the beginning of the third episode by showing Gustav and his work to get the Baudelaire’s to Uncle Monty. It also shows his death and world builds more than the books did at this point.
The second duo of episodes begins on Lousy Lane as Mr. Poe drives the Baudelaire’s to where they were supposed to go in the first place, the home of Montgomery Montgomery. This is the beginning of the two-part story of the Reptile Room. Asif Mendi plays Montgomery Montgomery in a very eccentric way that we didn’t as much see from Billy Connolly in the movie version of the books. This Monty is more eccentric and less of a father figure, as opposed to the movie version.
That said Monty is easily a character you want to root for and honestly he is the family that you want the kids to get since their parent’s death. As you know A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn’t end at two books and this means the arrival of Count Olaf in his first big disguise of the Series, Stefano. In the first of the two-part episode Stefano arrives and the Baudelaire’s attempt to show Monty he is evil and Monty believes it for different reasons than the children but ultimately at the end of the episode Monty will be dead.
The episode however introduces the idea that will eventually grow into VFD as we actually see Uncle Monty decode messages in the movie theater scene in one of the least non-suspicious uses of a telescope ever. Ultimately Monty dismisses Stefano on the word of himself and the children, he says goodnight to them once they reach home, and then he goes to the Reptile Room and he dies. The next episode shows the attempts of the children to prove to an arriving Mr. Poe that Stefano is in fact Count Olaf as they had attempted to previously with Uncle Monty.
This is where the show seems to have lost some of the pacing the movie got with having the attempts to prove that Count Olaf was behind Monty’s death and not in fact the Incredibly Deadly Viper. This involves Olaf’s troupe of henchman showing up as Coroner’s and the Police Department. Ultimately the children are able to use their abilities and prove it by showing that the Incredibly Deadly Viper is in fact not incredibly deadly as it was named with a misnomer. Olaf and his men than run off to not get arrested by Mr. Poe, but once again the bumbling banker is unable to catch them.
Thus we arrive at the final book of the original movie and the third of four covered in the Netflix Series, the Wide Window. The Wide Window was always one of my least favorite books as Aunt Josephine is literally crazy, she is in love with grammar which is a fun way to set up the mystery in the latter half of the book, but is afraid of literally every possibility. That said this part of her character is really thrown out the window once she meets a sea captain, Captain Sham and suddenly throws her fears away to go on a date with him. Of course Captain Sham is a character we know to be Count Olaf, Josephine does not listen and ultimately is forced to sign away the children and commit suicide.
But the series is not that dark is it, no. She faked her suicide which we only learn after the children escape Count Olaf and his sham disguise, and Mr. Poe who attempts to seal their fate as he signs them away once more. They return to Aunt Josephine’s house, which of course perilously hangs over the cliff onto a Lake and decipher a code that Aunt Josephine left in her note to them upon her death, which just so happen to be littered with grammatical errors, which here is a phrase which means she used this to give a code to the orphans.
The figure out the code and sail through a hurricane to the cave she has hidden in on the other side of the lake and attempt to rescue her. They return in the rickety boat but are attacked by leeches who sniff out those who eat food shortly before they sail the Lake, and lo and behold Aunt Josephine has eaten a Banana. Then they are rescued at the eleventh hour by a boat and all seems saved for now, but the rescuer is none other than Captain Sham. They then go to the dock where Mr. Poe is waiting and attempts once more to give the children to Count Olaf, but some quick thinking by Sunny and they escape and head towards a lumber mill where they believe to be answers to the secrets their parents seemed to have, and a way to figure out what the heck is going on in their world.
Before we move on I would like to say that in the original movie Meryl Streep played Aunt Josephine he portrayal of the scared widower was honestly a good character portrayal, but Alfre Woodward who took the part in this series proved rather impressive herself. She was as annoying as you expect Aunt Josephine to be, but in the end when it seems like she remembers the person she used to be you can tell more in this portrayal that Aunt Josephine was once a strong woman, but is a shell of what she was since her husband died. It is a chilling show of what can happen to someone when they lose someone, and it serves as a show of what the children go through as they lose person after person as the move forward in time.
We now move forward to the first book that hadn’t been put to film in the fourth story The Miserable Mill. The Miserable Mill is the story of a Mill that runs in a town that has been burned down with much illegal use of workers and only one local business otherwise the eye doctor Georgina Orwell. In the books the children end up here as Mr. Poe puts them in the service of the Mill, but in the show the kids go there of their own accord which serves to help lessen the idea of Mr. Poe as an incapable adult guardian.
The children arrive at the Mill and are almost immediately put to work in the Mill. The workers here are paid in coupons and given only gum for lunch which they only have five minutes to actually chew before they are put back to the hard work of a mill. That said many of the workers are perfectly fine with the conditions and feel it is pretty much the only course of action they have but to work like this until they are dead.
This is the one part where a really interesting change has been made from the narrative in the novels. That is where the fact that Orwell is working with Count Olaf is introduced early on in the first of the two episodes for the fourth book. They are shown as former lovers attempting to screw over a hated enemy from the past, the Baudelaire parents, and work together to use the children to get their money. This involves Count Olaf dressing as a secretary in drag. This is the character of Shirley.
Beyond this we must also comment on the idea of the people who run the mill a partnership of Sir and Charles. The show heavily hints to them being a gay couple and not just a normal partnership as the books really do. This is rather cool as it uses characterizations in the book and doesn’t change them to create different characters, but uses the text in a way that it presents itself. Sir is in charge of the mill and has created a pact with Georgina Orwell in which she brainwashes the millworkers into thinking the conditions are ok, and he lets her work in the town after she was seemingly discredited. Charles is a kind man who is the second partner of the mill and he often is overridden by Sir and seemingly has no say on what happens in the mill.
The narrative of this episode ark is pushed when Klaus’s glasses are broken by accident, which is a word which here means somehow actually tried to break them, this being the foreman who is really one of Olaf’s henchmen. Klaus is taken to Doctor Orwell who hypnotizes him into being a regular factory worker who does all the work he is told and does not side track. Eventually Klaus creates an accident at work and Sir sets it up with Shirley that if there is a second accident with Klaus that she can have the kids instead of them working at the mill.
Violet eventually figures out that Klaus is hypnotized and snaps him out of it, but this is noticed and for a second time he ends up hypnotized and attempts to kill Charles by cutting him in half. A scene ensues where both sides are attempting to get Klaus to stop killing Charles or to kill Charles and eventually Charles is freed and Orwell herself ends up dying as she falls into the furnace. This leads to Mr. Poe arriving and taking the children to Prufrock Preparatory School where the next episodes and the next season will begin with the Austere Academy.
A note should be made of course about the previously mentioned characters of Mother and Father played by Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett throughout the eight episodes. These characters are presented as being on a side story, a small side story, starting with them being kidnapped and taken to Peru by their captor, but escaping and making their way back to their home. Throughout this is used as a possible idea that the Baudelaire’s parents, Bertrand and Beatrice, are still alive. While in the books the two are ambiguously dead throughout the series due to the fire, these characters are ultimately revealed as the two Quagmire parents that return to their own three kids, Duncan, Isadora, and Quigley, shortly before their own house is engulfed in flames.
This is used to present hope to new watchers to the series, with many fans of the books likely reading into the fact that they are often ambiguously between what you would think of the Quagmire and Baudelaire parents. It also really presents the idea of Isadora and Duncan who will shortly join the series at the beginning of the next two episodes as they are also students along with the Baudelaire’s at Prufrock Prep. They quickly endear themselves to readers and fans alike and are some of my favorite characters in Lemony Snicket’s universe. This bit nicely sets up the second season of the show and serves to fill out the great unknown quantities found throughout the series and fills in how the world around the Baudelaire’s is moving when so often the narrative moves little from their paths.
Speaking of the narrative we have so far managed to almost completely avoid tackling the fifth main character of the story and that is really the narrator and “author” of the book Lemony Snicket. Played masterfully by Patrick Warburton the narrator moves in and out of the story as much as you see it in the text itself. He is used mostly for exposition but also adds to the world with each smooth word he presents. This is a big change from the movie in which Jude Law was Lemony Snicket and was a mystery for much of the movie, while Warburton is mysterious in the show but is presented throughout. Another problem with Jude Law was in the movie he was the only character with an English accent and it was quite different than the rest of the characters. This is characteristic of the series as the books are written in an ambiguous way as if to not have an actual real life setting. The grating thing about Law's portrayal was that he was the only one with that accent and this made Lemony Snicket different from all other characters, but he is not inherently different than any of them. The mystery of Lemony Snicket is that he is almost not a character of the story, but in reality is perhaps the biggest character of the stories throughout.
On the whole the show is one of my favorite Netflix series on first watch, and will likely only grow as the next two seasons come. The second season has already been given the green light and that was before the first even came out which shows the faith that there is in this show to be a success and for the most part I think everything I ever wanted out of this show has been presented. The tone is right, the characters are right, the casting is right, the directing is right, the tempo is right, and the acting is right. My only wish is that there was more much like every time one of the series I have adored in book form has become a visual media.
I think the most important thing about the show is how faithfully it follows the books and that can be attributed both to Daniel Handler and those in charge at Netflix who gave the series the breathing room it needed to be created. Everything looks great, everything sounds great and overall it is a great success. I can’t wait for season two and everyone to meat Principal Nero, Esme and Jerome Squalor, Hector, the Twins Isadora and Duncan, and watch the events of the next five books take to the screen.