Netflix has just been rolling out the original series lately, and one of their recent ideas is a TV adaptation of one of my favorite childhood series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is yet another series which had an extremely regrettable movie adaptation, and so when I saw the Netflix teaser trailer, I thought I’d better re-read the books so I’d be prepared for this new adaptation. However, I was surprised to find that while I still liked the books, I didn’t like them nearly as much as I’d remembered.
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are three normal children just enjoying a day at the beach when Mr. Poe, an accountant and friend of their parents, comes to tell them that their house burned down in a fire, their parents are dead, and they’ve been ordered to live with a distant relative. So begins the Baudelaires’ series of unfortunate events. As the last surviving Baudelaires, they are heirs to the enormous Baudelaire fortune, which Violet, the eldest, cannot access until she comes of age. That doesn’t mean that other people can’t try to access it: the Baudelaires are immediately stalked by Count Olaf, a dastardly villain who will stop at nothing to get his hands on their money. The siblings go through guardian after guardian and living situation after living situation, all the while dealing with horrors like carnivorous leeches, dangerous reptiles, and deadly fungi. As the Baudelaires try their best to thwart Olaf’s plans, they also learn about the mysterious organization known as V.F.D., their family history, and ultimately, themselves.
As a kid, there were a number of reasons A Series of Unfortunate Events caught my attention, and none of them seemed to age well with me personally. First, the series clearly advertised itself as an unhappy story. Everyone (including me) was reading stuff like Harry Potter, which was an ultimately uplifting story, and for whatever reason, I thought it would be quite “cool” of me to read something unhappy. This doesn’t make much sense when you think about it, because Harry Potter has its fair share of dark themes, as do other series I was reading at the time, but that was my entire rationale for picking up the first book at the library in 1999. Each book starts with a few paragraphs from the book’s narrator and author, Lemony Snicket, which beseech the reader to put down the book and read something happier. As the story continues and the Baudelaires get into more and more dangerous (and miserable) predicaments, Snicket puts in more and more warnings about how the book and the Baudelaires’ lives can only end in tears.
Snicket also uses numerous large words in his prose. Because it’s ostensibly for a children’s audience, Snicket somewhat offsets the misery of his stories by including numerous asides, a word which here means “funny phrases which may or may not accurately define the word at hand”, and because a lot of the words were unfamiliar to me as a kid, I actually learned a lot of vocabulary this way. When I was young, I thought Snicket was a hilarious narrator. Yet when rereading the series as an adult, both of these prose idiosyncrasies kind of annoyed me. I found myself skimming over the warnings and the asides several times, because I already knew that the series was meant to be a sad one and I already knew the meanings of all the words.
Along the same lines, it seemed clear to me that the series did not have to be thirteen books long (and probably was only thirteen books because thirteen is not the luckiest of numbers). The Baudelaires learn bits and pieces of the V.F.D. mystery surrounding themselves and their parents throughout the series, and there’s plenty of suspense threaded throughout the books, from Count Olaf’s plans to the possibility of a living Baudelaire parent to Lemony Snicket’s own involvement in the events of the story (and I loved that the narrator was actually incorporated in the plot). But a lot of time is spent fleshing out side plots that don’t go anywhere, and the few clues we do get are never satisfyingly resolved. Snicket was right in saying that it was an unhappy story, but I don’t think he meant for “unhappy” to mean “there was no emotional through-line”.
Despite this, though, A Series of Unfortunate Events had some very strong messages about the importance of education, having a moral compass, and free will. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are all quite intelligent, and throughout the series they use their skills in inventing, research, and cooking to fool their enemies and find their allies. They realize that adults are often not as helpful as one might assume, and indeed, the adults in the series are either foolish or easily swayed by mob psychology, conformity, or just a lack of initiative. It’s kids like the Baudelaires and their friends the Quagmires who can get things done, because they know how to think. On the flip side of things, as things get worse for the Baudelaires, they also have to contend with their own strategies. Is it right to cause harm to an enemy if it means escaping themselves? Is it okay to burn down a building if you’re doing it to keep your cover or to destroy other information? What about kidnapping, poisoning, or murder? And as the Baudelaires do more morally grey things, they find out that many of their villains, Count Olaf included, aren’t just the one-dimensional enemies they assumed. Snicket’s snarky prose makes you assume the story isn’t actually that dark, but the story actually covers some very serious issues indeed.
Although the series focuses primarily on the themes mentioned above, it’s populated by a good group of characters. There was room for more defined diversity—none of the races of any characters are specified in any way, which meant that the movie adaptation cast everyone as white and Netflix probably will too, but at least the opportunity for diversity is there. And there is very little romance in the story (because the Baudelaires were young kids and had more immediate concerns on their minds), but the relationships we saw were all unfortunately heterosexual. But our three main characters were extremely competent and drove the plot, even Sunny, who starts the series as a baby. Each of them have different skills, and each gets to use them throughout the series to help their siblings (unlike in the movie, where Klaus got to do everything). Personally, Violet was always my favorite—she had way too much on her plate to be concerned with her looks or whether or not boys liked her, the narrative never focused on her looks, and everyone admired her inventing skills. In fact, all of the female characters, save for perhaps villain Esmé Squalor, had depth outside of “being a girl in a mystery”, and their intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity were always lauded over any other aspect of their character.
Taking all this into account, I’m very interested in how Netflix is going to handle its adaptation of this series. So much of this series’ atmosphere and character is based on its prose and its narrator, and I think it will be quite difficult to translate that to a visual rather than a written medium. So despite my quibbles about rereading the series as an adult, I’d recommend reading the books before the Netflix original series comes out next year!