I’m of rather mixed feelings about Netflix’s newest original series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. If I take it at face value, it’s a very faithful adaptation of the book series, and it’s honestly an enjoyable way to spend eight hours. Neil Patrick Harris does a fantastic job as Count Olaf, and slips into and out of each of Olaf’s disguises with a whimsical flair that makes the unfortunate events of the series seem drearily entertaining rather than just dreary. Though it seems at times darker than the book series, much of the acting is clearly meant for a children’s demographic, as the characters go through the plot reveals with all the suspense of a Scooby-Doo-esque “I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” And the runtime, though a little bloated, allows a lot of time for the adult actors to make their shenanigans funny. I really enjoyed watching this series. However, in adapting the book series to Netflix, a few things were expanded on that ended up making the story’s internal logic a little, well, unfortunate.
Spoilers for the series (and some mild spoilers for the books) after the jump.
As you may remember from reading the books, A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, as they struggle to survive in a world where their parents are dead and their parents’ banker, Mr. Poe, has packed them off to live with distant relative after distant relative. They quickly discover that the first relative they’ve been sent to live with, a Count Olaf, is a dastardly villain set on stealing the enormous fortune left to the Baudelaires by their parents. But—and this is particularly important to the Netflix series—it turns out that the Baudelaire parents and Count Olaf knew each other long before the series started, and there’s a much larger mystery afoot that the Baudelaires must solve about their parents. They—and Count Olaf—have some sort of history with a group called the V.F.D.
Daniel Handler, who wrote the books under the penname of Lemony Snicket, is also the person serving as executive producer for the Netflix show, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that A Series of Unfortunate Events is exactingly faithful to its source material. Right off the bat, though, it’s apparent that the creative team is trying hard to make the story feel more interconnected than the novels did. Each book is fairly separate from the others; they don’t stand alone, but each features the Baudelaires in a new situation with a new caretaker. It’s episodic, at times to the point of boredom, because we don’t really understand that there is an overarching mystery until well into the series. In the Netflix series, the mystery is apparent from the very first episode, when Klaus finds a spyglass in the rubble of their burned-out house. The series adds new characters and new subplots which direct the children (and us, the viewers) from one place to the next, and makes it seem like there was a reason the children needed to go to each place beyond Handler deciding there needed to be thirteen books in the series.
However, in so adapting the books, the Netflix series ended up doing some strange things to the agency and general believability of its side characters. Uncle Monty, played by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s Aasif Mandvi, is the caretaker to whom the Baudelaires are sent after Count Olaf and seems at first like the best caretaker the children could have asked for. He’s a herpetologist, a word which here means that he studies rather more fantastical snakes than exist in our world, and he encourages Klaus to research, Violet to invent, and Sunny to bite things. He even sees right through Count Olaf’s disguise when Olaf inevitably shows up. Though the children don’t understand it yet, Monty is clearly a member of the V.F.D., and intercepts and decodes a message from V.F.D. agents, after which he tells the children that they need to run away to Peru. Then he… accuses Olaf of being a spy from the Herpetological Society? That can’t be right.
In the books, Monty is a nice enough caretaker, but he shares the general cluelessness that most of the adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events did. We honestly don’t know that he’s a V.F.D. member until much much later in the series—in Monty’s book, The Reptile Room, Monty’s been planning an exhibition to Peru, but only to find more snakes, and he believes that Count Olaf isn’t a friendly herpetological assistant, but doesn’t understand that Count Olaf is Count Olaf and thus dies as a result. This all makes sense for the friendly and amiable Uncle Monty of the books. It does not make sense for the V.F.D. Uncle Monty of the series, who is in contact with other V.F.D. members and is physically gifted enough to subdue two of Olaf’s henchwomen. Why would this Monty still not know that Count Olaf is Count Olaf? Even if he couldn’t figure it out himself, wouldn’t a V.F.D. spy have told him? How did Olaf even get the jump on him long enough to kill him?
A similar, though even more poorly written, thing happens with Aunt Josephine, the caretaker after Uncle Monty. The books and the series agree that Aunt Josephine is terrified of everything, and actress Alfre Woodward plays this with aplomb. The series, however, has several characters tell the Baudelaires that Josephine used to be “fierce and formidable”, though we never once see it. When Olaf has them cornered, Josephine finally speaks up for herself and is fierce and formidable—only to be immediately killed when Olaf pushes her off the boat they’re all on. If she was such a fierce and formidable lady, why was she brought down—both literally and figuratively—by one push?
A main theme of the books was the Baudelaire children discovering that they and they alone could save themselves precisely because all the adults around them were so incompetent. Because they were children, they were able to think in more flexible ways than adults, leading them to overcome such sociological things like mob pressure, conformity, and indecisiveness. Though it’s incredibly frustrating to see the Baudelaire children let down again and again by a system of caretakers who should have taken care of them, there was at least a point to this neglect in the book series. In the Netflix series, apparently the caretakers are smart people who are only dumb as necessary for the plot.
This is even the case when it comes to the new character created specifically for the Netflix series. Jacquelyn, a woman who starts out as Mr. Poe’s secretary and quickly reveals herself to be a V.F.D. spy, helps lead the children from location to location by popping up in select scenes in every episode to give the children another hint as to their parents’ true identities. Jacquelyn knows many things, such as martial arts and passing coded messages, but in the very first episode Olaf is able to foil her plans to send the children to Uncle Monty just by wrenching a file folder away from her. Again, it’s nice to see a competent adult for once, but not when that adult’s inconsistencies strain belief.
When it comes to updating the series for 2017, most of this is done through the narrator, Lemony Snicket. The world doesn’t have technology like mobile phones or computers, which adds to the show’s Tim Burton-like aesthetic, but the show cheerfully breaks the fourth wall by having Olaf talk about how streaming TV is preferable to going to the movies and Snicket talking directly to the camera about recent news from our real world. To me, this adds a lot to the whimsical idea of having a clearly omnipresent narrator, but some of Snicket’s asides add little to the story. For example, in defining the word “partner” for the audience, Snicket references the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage and strongly implies that Sir and Charles, two of our villains-slash-incompetent-adults, are in a relationship. If so, that’s not the greatest representation we could ask for. In the same vein, Sir tells the Baudelaires (while looking directly into the camera) “there’s nothing villainous about free healthcare”. But because Sir, a villain, is providing said healthcare, and because this economic factoid is never brought up again, it’s not a particularly insightful aside.
But since we’re talking about representation, we have to talk about the ways in which A Series of Unfortunate Events did not succeed at adapting its source material—and indeed, seemed like it didn’t even try. In my Trailer Tuesdays on the show, I mentioned that I was concerned about many of the original issues in the books, and it turns out I was right to be concerned. Mr. Poe and his wife, a Black couple, play a large role in getting the orphans settled, but they’re incapable of doing anything useful and the wife is a prime example of the Angry Black Woman trope. Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine, both people of color, die gruesome and at times nonsensical deaths. Everyone who could possibly turn out to be competent—Count Olaf, the Baudelaires, their eventual friends the Quagmires, Jacquelyn, and Lemony Snicket himself—is white.
And beyond race, the Netflix series doesn’t do much to address the books’ original problems with disability and gender presentation. Count Olaf’s henchman, the Hook-Handed Man, never gets a name in the series and is played by an able-bodied actor rather than one with the character’s disability; later on, Olaf disguises himself as a sailor with a prosthetic to “prove” that he couldn’t possibly be Count Olaf since he doesn’t have a leg. And of course, there’s the episode where Olaf disguises himself as a woman to pursue the Baudelaires. The Baudelaires quickly point out that “Shirley” is really a man, but are chastised by the adults around them. In this instance, we’re meant to agree with the Baudelaires, no matter how excellent Neil Patrick Harris’s makeup is in this scene, that “Shirley” is really a man. Children watching this show may see it as just another disguise for Count Olaf, but it really furthers the idea that trans women are secretly just men in disguise.
Ultimately, I had a good time watching this show and I believe that a lot of young kids will have fun discovering this series and its mysteries for the first time. The adaption really captures the tone of the books in a way that’s quite inviting, and the content was more than faithful. However, in expanding the Unfortunate Events universe to fit the long Netflix runtime (two episodes for each 300 page book), the story’s internal logic starts to show some cracks. I’m looking forward to the already-announced Season 2, but I hope that Handler and the creative team will take a little more care in their additions.