Published Jan 12, 2017As its name suggests, Lemony Snicket's cult children's book series A Series of Unfortunate Events is not the happiest affair, despite its youthful target audience. Depicting the misadventures of three precocious siblings following the death of their parents in a house fire, the 13-volume series blurred the line between child-friendly whimsy and adult themes including loss and moral ambiguity.
But the books were just as much about form as content: Series narrator Lemony Snicket (the nom de plume of writer Daniel Handler) was a character himself, and each book was expertly filled with meta-humour, a dizzying slew of references out of cultural reach of most children and clues that hinted at a larger mystery lurking beneath the plot.
Filmic adaptations were plagued by real-world misfortune. When the first three books were adapted into a Jim Carrey-starring feature film in 2004, the winding plot was over-simplified; the writers and producers struggled to translate the originals' idiosyncratic humour to the big screen — even ousting Handler (who wrote the initial screenplay) and director Barry Sonnenfeld in the process — and the film failed both to please old fans and capture new ones.
But, finally, some good news regarding the series: After Netflix commissioned a television adaptation, Handler and Sonnenfeld were given the reins to bring Unfortunate Events to screens on their own terms; the results are, so far, a rousing success.
Dividing each of the first four volumes into two hour-long episodes, this first season both recreates the world and unique tone of the books, and offers plenty of new material to surprise even the biggest Snicket diehard. Each book is given proper breathing space for a faithful adaptation, but the series quickly establishes itself as a different beast. Not only is every episode stockpiled with references to future material, but new storylines quickly introduce the series' overarching narrative — which the books took longer to establish — and add some new questions into the mix. On Netflix, viewers can pause to look for clues hidden in the background, or jump between episodes for another look at scenes that might actually have been crucial after all.
None of this would be compelling if not for the cast. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are anchored-yet-sympathetic as young leads Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, while its star-studded adult cast, including Joan Cusack as a maternal judge and former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi as eccentric herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery, drive the titular mishaps with playful obliviousness.
The biggest stars, though, are Patrick Warburton as Snicket — an inspired choice as the dry, fourth wall-breaking narrator — and Neil Patrick Harris as disguise-prone Count Olaf, the series' amusingly buffoonish but ultimately despicable villain.
Set against a vivid backdrop that merges Pushing Daisies' distinctive, cartoonish graphics with Gothic imagery (and whose first two episodes Sonnenfeld directed), this new adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events imbues the aging franchise with new life. The plot, tone and characters are faithful enough to appease the rabid fanbase, but engaging enough to enlist many a new devotee. (Netflix)