It’s not often that you get a second chance to see something you love adapted for the screen. Usually you get one shot, and if it’s bad then that’s it. You’re left with a novel or series of novels you love and a movie you dislike. Unless, that is, the source material you like is Spider-Man comics, in which case it seems as though you get unlimited attempts. With A Series of Unfortunate Events, it seemed as though the 2004 movie was the only filmed version we would get of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket’s fantastic series of books. There are things to like about the movie. The cast is great and it looks correct but there are changes and tweaks and something just feels off about the whole thing, especially as the movie tries to adapt three books at once. The book series is very much, in the earlier volumes, a set of standalone adventures in which the Baudelaire orphans are ferried from guardian to guardian, pursued each time by a disguised Count Olaf who they must outwit and unmask. They lend themselves more to serialised chunks than to a ninety minute movie, and that’s where the new Netflix series comes in.
The beauty of the TV adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that each book is given room to breathe over two episodes. This means that each book gets a thorough adaptation while at the same time there is more space for writer Daniel Handler to add in extra bits and set up mysteries that will be answered in future episodes. The books are mostly told from the perspective of the three orphans, with the continuing adventures of Lemony Snicket as a framing device, while the TV show can jump around more giving us the actions of some characters we only get to hear about in the books and to flesh out some characters like Mr. Poe, Count Olaf, and the mysterious couple played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders. The expanded format also means that Handler can add scenes, characters, and clues that perhaps weren’t thought of until later in the book series into earlier episodes.
A Series of Unfortunate Events itself retains all the good stuff from the novels in that it is intensely weird, very dark, and absolutely hilarious. Barry Sonnenfeld directs four of the eight episodes and sets the tone for the whole series early on. The show feels a lot like his Addams Family adaptation with a heavy dose of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson thrown in for good measure. Everything is heavily stylised and looks utterly gorgeous while at the same time being disconcerting and weird.
Much like the earlier movie adaptation the casting is spot on throughout A Series of Unfortunate Events. The three orphans, played by Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith are incredible. It would be easy for the characters to be played big and precocious but the two older actors play the roles as though they are the only normal people in a world full of lunatics, and Presley Smith is the cutest baby actor ever to grace the screen. Lemony Snicket, our narrator and wanted fugitive, is played with deadpan charm by Patrick Warburton. The character appears throughout to give us updates on the story, helpful asides, and to evade his pursuers. He is one of those actors who can draw a laugh with one drawn out word and he is given a fantastic showcase to be droll, mysterious, and a little ridiculous.
The MVP in all this is Neil Patrick Harris, whose Count Olaf is evil, silly, terrifying, strangely likable, and hilarious. Harris goes huge with the character using tons of physicality, voices, costumes, and angry malice. He is a living cartoon character and also the bad guy in every fairy tale. Handler created an amazing villain back in the source material and Harris completely does him justice.
In contrast to the movie the level of diversity among the cast is hugely improved with the casting of Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Usman Ally, and K. Todd Freeman in key roles that were filled with white actors previously. The other supporting roles are a murderer’s row of great actors with Joan Cusack, Don Johnson, Rhys Darby, and Catherine O’Hara all playing characters both helpful and painfully unhelpful.
A Series of Unfortunate Events moves at a lightning-quick pace, featuring incredibly deadly vipers, musical numbers, lumber, zombies in snow, clues, codes, conundrums, eye exams, hypnotism, the catchiest theme tune ever, grammar, murder, betrayal, banking, and a great recipe for puttanesca sauce.
Featured Image: Netflix