If you clicked on this article, hoping for a pleasant piece of hagiography on a forgotten family film from 2004, then I am sorry to say you have taken a wrong turn. What we have here is not a happy tale of critical resuscitation. Instead, you will find a story of thwarted studio ambitions, terrible child actors, and a squandering of artistic potential. With the coming of a new Netflix series, it is my unfortunate duty to look back at the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
These days every studio is scrambling to create their own Cinematic Universe to compete with the Marvel/Disney juggernaut. But back in the early 2000s, the Harry Potter franchise was the new hotness. At the time, it promised a series of at least seven films, all guaranteed to be box office smashes. Not only that, but Harry Potter could be merchandised as heavily as Star Wars.
After Philosopher’s Stone in 2001, everyone needed their own long-running children’s book series to milk, and the Paramount-owned Nickelodeon managed to snag A Series of Unfortunate Events. Written by Daniel Handler, under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket, the 13-book Series of Unfortunate Events chronicles the lives of the three Baudelaire orphans: Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny. After the death of their parents, the children are threatened by the villainous Count Olaf, who constantly tries to defraud them of their family fortune.
From the very beginning, the project was fraught with difficulties. Despite both being a long series of children’s books, Lemony Snicket was always very different from Harry Potter, a universe much more easily suited to celluloid. Whereas Harry Potter has a more conventional omnipotent third-person narrator, much of the tone in A Series of Unfortunate Events derives from Snicket’s personal narration. And because of this narration, many of the events in Snicket work better in a book than they do onscreen. A good example is when the Baudelaires decipher a code in a suicide note. In the books, the pleasure from this scene comes from readers being able to decipher it for themselves. But this cannot be translated on film, at least in a mainstream family film, and so it inevitably comes across as clunky.
The film’s misshaped structure is exacerbated by trying to squeeze the first three books into a feature less than two hours long. Making the opposite mistake of the Hobbit trilogy, the story is strangled.
In each instalment of the book series, the orphans are taken to a new guardian. Usually, a book takes place over several weeks, where they become used to their guardians. In the film, however, they spend less than a day each with Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine. Because their time together is so minimal, the children and the audience never form an emotional attachment to these characters.
Uncle Monty’s murder in the second book is all the more tragic, because the children have spent several happy weeks with him. In the film, he’s barely introduced before Count Olaf arrives to kill him, and so the tragedy is undercut. In short, the film feels like there are missing scenes. For example, when Uncle Monty says he needs the orphans to help him in the Reptile Room, conventional expectation suggests that there will be a sequence where the children use their unique abilities. Instead, the film cuts straight to the evening, after all the work has been done. The problematic pacing of the film is only one part of the problem, however; its focus is also to blame.
At its core, the series is about the Baudelaire children, and how they relate to the world. Young adult stories usually position their main characters as some sort of “Chosen One”, and emphasise their importance in resolving the conflicts of their respective universes. In contrast, the Baudelaires are shown to be profoundly insignificant, and ultimately powerless. They are whisked from one guardian to the next with no say in the matter. Most of their struggles in the story come from using their abilities to overcome the limitations that society puts in their way. These books are about children, for children; however, the film sidelines them and is far too enamoured with its villain: Count Olaf.
Jim Carrey admittedly is the best thing about the film. Count Olaf is a pretentious actor, which gives Carrey the perfect excuse for his trademark exaggeration. It’s very difficult to play a bad actor well, as you risk annoying the audience, but Carrey entertains whenever he is onscreen. Unfortunately, he is on it for far too long.
The Baudelaires are neglected by the filmmakers – they never really talk to one another despite always being together. This makes the siblings’ relationship impossible to gauge. Plus, they are drained of all personality. Whatever you may think about their acting in the early Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson always had chemistry. In Lemony Snicket, it’s hard to believe the Baudelaires are siblings at all and not just three random kids lumped together.
It’s very difficult to get good performances out of young actors (and in the case of A Series of Unfortunate Events, things are even harder because one of the actors is an infant). Yet rigorous workshopping can allow younger actors to shine. Instead, more effort seems to have been put into the look of the film, which mixes the gothic with mid-20th century Americana.
In fact, all the film’s best qualities are surface-deep. It won an Oscar for Best Makeup, at least in part due to Olaf’s incredibly impressive disguises. However, by thrusting the villain centre-stage, to the detriment of the Baudelaires, the film ultimately loses the emotional connection that makes the books resonate with young readers.
Even in the nitty-gritty details, the film fails as an adaptation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the climax. In both book and film, Count Olaf puts on a play called The Marvelous Marriage, casting himself as the Groom and Violet as the Bride. Unbeknownst to the play’s audience, Olaf has made sure the “staged” wedding is actually legally binding, giving him access to the Baudelaire fortune.
In the book, Violet draws on her research into marital law, and renders the marriage illegitimate by using her left hand rather than her writing hand. It’s a clever moment that demonstrates how the Baudelaires use their intellect to get out of bad situations. In the film, Klaus sets fire to the marriage certificate by pointing a giant magnifying glass at it from afar.
On the one hand, this makes the scene more cinematic, but it only works by generating false tension, having the sun shine at the very last moment and allowing light to pass through the glass and ignite the certificate. What makes this climax such a betrayal of the series is that it reduces the Baudelaires to servants of fate. It also robs Violet of her agency, and instead turns her into a damsel. It is this moment, more than any other, that proves the filmmakers had little understanding of the work they were adapting.
So perhaps, dear reader, when you are perusing Netflix one evening and you happen to see the name A Series of Unfortunate Events pop up, make sure it’s the Neil Patrick Harris version first. I hear it’s much better.