Back in 2004, Lemony Snicket’s critically-acclaimed children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events, finally got the big screen attention it deserved. With A-list actors like Meryl Streep, Jude Law, and Jim Carrey, I was really excited to watch my favourite children’s book series come to life. But the movie proved to be a relatively large flop; it crammed several novels into a measly one hour and 48 minutes.
For the past 13 years, I’ve been waiting for someone to take another crack at the series. Lo and behold, this past Friday marked the anticipated release of Netflix’s take on the series. However, after plowing through the eight episodes currently available, I regret to say that Netflix’s adaptation is another swing and miss.
The episodes are broken down into two-part episodes, each focusing on one novel. Walking in with admittedly high expectations, “The Bad Beginning” didn’t hook me right away. Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) interrupts the story several times (as he does in the novels) to inform the audience of impending doom, or to define certain words in his vocabulary. Warburton’s usual comedic roles are swapped here for a more serious one. The deadpan delivery of his lines failed to interest me or convince me of his investment in the Baudelaire’s stories. Warburton maintains his lifeless portrayal of Snicket throughout the season.
Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) also failed to impress, especially in his introduction in “The Bad Beginning.” The TV version of Poe maintains his coughing fits (in a red handkerchief, not a white one, but I digress…) and overall uselessness in protecting the Baudelaires. But, Freeman’s over-the-top version fits more into the light-hearted route Netflix decided to take rather than the character he is in the novels. This is most notably seen when Mr. Poe breaks it to the children that their parents have perished in a terrible fire that destroyed their entire home. Freeman’s carefree portrayal cast Mr. Poe with a hint of a smile on his face as he told the Baudelaires their fate. Kid-friendly or not, no one has a smile on their face when they tell three children that their parents are dead.
Not all casting decisions were bizarre ones, however, with Neil Patrick Harris donning the role of Count Olaf, following Jim Carrey in the 2004 film adaptation. Harris does a stellar job as Olaf, mimicking the insanity and debauchery of his character well. Despite his performance, the writing diminished Olaf’s overall villainy.
The choice for Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith) were strong, with each mirroring the kindness and intelligence of their novel counterparts. Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard) and Uncle Monty (Aasif Mandvi) also nailed their portrayals.
It’s fair to note that the author, Lemony Snicket (real name Daniel Handler), acts as the show’s head writer, which is probably why so many lines remains similar to the novels. There are several similarities that pay homage to the novels, such as Klaus constantly telling the adults in his life who define words for him that he already knows the definition. Sunny’s shrieks have subtitles underneath them, which often convey full sentences that a baby would never be able to say. Violet still ties her hair in a bow when she’s about to invent. Klaus is struck across the face for defying Olaf in front of his troupe.
However, this adaptation takes a serious departure from the bleak, depressing material that runs through the books. In order to make the series more family-friendly, comical lines are sprinkled throughout the episodes, which are often coupled with upbeat or whimsical music. These changes negate Olaf’s treachery entirely, making him more outrageous than terrifying. Additionally, the one-liners or obvious jokes that he’s given only add to his outlandish behaviour. One could argue that these things bring his idiocy to life in a more obvious way, but the writing and music also sacrifice his blatant cruelty to make it seem more kid-friendly.
Another disappointing departure from the book series is Olaf’s troupe. These dimwitted characters serve as even more comic relief throughout the episodes. Regardless of the fact that they work for him, they often seem to question Olaf’s motives and aren’t as devoted to his heinous schemes as they ought to be. For example, after Olaf strikes Klaus in the face, they all react with shock as opposed to applauding him for his violence like they’re supposed to.
One of the traits that attracted me to this series was how different it was from other children’s books. Its heartbreaking content made it stand out from the rest. However, Netflix’s version of A Series of Unfortunate Events removes the majority of the unfortunate events that plague the lives of the Baudelaires, instead settling on the ridiculous with hopes that the audience will laugh. That’s what bothers me the most about this adaptation. The series isn’t supposed to be funny. The books were meant for children and included every miserable detail of their lives for children to weep over. But, these episodes prey on cheap jokes and obvious one-liners, completely stripping the series of its sadness.
For what it is, and what Netflix wanted to do with the series, A Series of Unfortunate Events fits the role of a kid’s show pretty well. I wouldn’t necessarily tell people to boycott this adaptation, because it does its job well as a watered-down version of the series. But, if you’re a devoted fan who was expecting more of a reflection of the novels, you’re in for an unfortunate event.