After 15 years of trying, Barry Sonnenfeld ( The Addams Family, Men in Black ) has finally been given his chance to direct ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ – now a Netflix series adapted from Daniel Handler’s book series of the same name.
The director was hired and then controversially fired from helming the Jim Carrey-starring 2004 film adaptation. Sonnenfeld cites Handler’s novels, written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, to be his favourite children’s stories – a passion that is evident throughout every frame of this eight episode odyssey packed to the brim with dejection, obsession and misfortune.
The show tracks the travails of the three Baudelaire children Violet (Weissman), Klaus (Hynes) and Sunny (Smith), who after their parents perish in a terrible fire, are placed under the guardianship of the dastardly villain Count Olaf (Patrick Harris) who is driven by the prospect of getting his dangerous hands on the large fortune that the orphans have inherited.
Cimmerian narrator Lemony Snicket (Warburton) accompanies viewers throughout the narrative, insisting that it is his ‘solemn duty’ to research and recount the Baudelaire’s terrible tale, one which he repeatedly warns is not for the faint of heart.
Despite being punctuated by a painful premise and a murderous, macabre middle ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is an utterly delightful watch. It manages to deftly juggle its duty to stay true to its source material while embracing its new medium of serialised television. And, as it turns out, Netflix provides the perfect platform for these unfortunate events to unfold.
Whereas the film adaptation attempted to squeeze the first three books in the series into a concise 107 minute runtime, stifling its source material, the show decides to cover four stories across its 8 episode first season. This means that each miserable episode in the Baudelaire’s existence is given more room to breath, even going as far as to improve in some respects on Handler’s books – notably due to the additional dialogue and inventive visual cues and sight gags.
The primary strength of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is the writing, four episodes were handled by Handler himself and the show’s snappy dialogue and witty musings combine to ensure each installment runs along smoothly and remains steadfastly engaging, despite the somewhat formulaic structure of each separate story.
The characters are perfectly cast, from main players to chorus members. The headline attraction is, of course, Neil Patrick Harris in the role of the nefarious Olaf. Harris does a stellar job, like Carrey before him, as the Count – managing to deftly balance the villain’s innate theatricality and unintentional hilarity with his intimidating menace, the very trait causing him to lie, cheat and murder in his unrelenting quest to steal the Baudelaire’s fortune.
Harris also carries off Olaf’s many ‘disguises’ admirably, succeeding in what is a very difficult niche, that of being a good actor attempting to appear as a bad one. The three child actors all perform their parts well, with each one (even the infant Smith) managing to capture the essence of what made these characters so likeable and pitiable in Handler’s books. This is especially impressive as, while the film version shone the spotlight primarily on Carrey as Olaf, the show admirably attempts to keep its three protagonists front and centre – an occasionally tough task when the performances complementing them are so strong. Special mention must go to K.Todd Freeman whose Mr. Poe – monetary manager of the Baudelaire’s inheritance, plays a substantially bigger role here than he does in the novels.
The show is, however, without a doubt stolen by Patrick Warburton, who proves an inspired stroke of casting in the role of Lemony Snicket. Warburton’s Snicket is decidedly dreary and droll, with the actor’s distinctive voice and onscreen presence consistently commanding the viewer’s attention every time he wanders into the story. His performance provides the perennial heartbeat of the story, continuously breaking the fourth wall to advance the audience through the murky, miserable narrative of the Bauderlaire orphans’ lives.
In terms of style the series is decidedly off-kilter, unafraid to poke fun at itself and embrace the more zany qualities of the novels. It’s not unusual for Olaf, a self professed “renowned thespian” to break out in song and dance in fits of theatrical flourish, a move which smartly takes advantage of Harris’ Broadway sensibilities. Moreover, this kind of detour is embraced throughout the show, and it’s just another part of the narrative world’s inherent weirdness. Critics who have compared the show’s visual template to the works of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson definitely aren’t wrong, it’s gloomy, gothic aesthetic is reminiscent of Burton’s nadir while the embrace of a wide aspect ratio and the quirky, matter of fact dialogue both bear Anderson’s calling card. This is not to disparage the show, it’s simply that those two filmmakers have become so synonymous with their signature style that the comparison is difficult not to draw. The series bears just as much influence from Sonnenfeld’s work – notably ‘The Addams Family’ and its sequel.
While the stories translate extremely well to television the show isn’t perfect. Some of the CGI is very choppy, notably when animating Sunny, and one notable third act twist feels forced, serving to disparage an otherwise engaging subplot that we won’t spoil here.
Overall, however, the marriage of Lemony Snicket and Netflix feels like a very fortunate one and, with another 2 seasons planned it will be fascinating to see how the more divergent story threads of the later novels will play out onscreen. This version of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is, so far, a success and, at long last, an adaptation that fans of the book series can call meritorious. A phrase which here means ‘well worth the wait’.
CT Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Developed by: Mark Hudis, Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, K.Todd Freeman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith
David Deignan | Film & TV Editor