20 years have passed since Lemony Snicket began to chronicle the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphans.
Since that Bad Beginning in 1999, these clever siblings and their unibrowed nemesis have only grown in popularity. Even before he penned The End seven years later, Paramount Pictures (with Nickelodeon) had already adapted the first three installments of Snicket’s 13-book saga into a major motion picture.
Thirteen years after that, Netflix got on board the sinking ship, and the 25th (and final) episode of their series was just released in January. How did this production stack up against the movie—and the original writings of Daniel Handler himself?
First, a word of caution: What you’re about to read comes from a hardcore Snicket fan.
As anyone who has read my blog or who follows me on Instagram knows, I believe Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) is one of the greatest literary minds of our time. His voice as an author is distinctive; his philosophy, both eccentric and oddly relatable. A Series of Unfortunate Events, as one of his earliest works and unarguably the most popular, exhibits these trademarks in a special way.
In essence, books 2 through 12 are all retellings of the basic story arc of number 1: after narrowly escaping from a wicked Count who’s out to steal their fortune, the Baudelaires seek refuge in a new place. With few exceptions, the people there are either A) kind but unhelpful, or B) trying to murder them. Using their mechanical skills, their well-read brains, and their sharp teeth, they make it out of one dangerous situation and into the next.
The only obvious variations between the books are in their settings and supporting characters. Yet, when we look beneath their repetitive surface, we see that Snicket is unraveling a complex history which ties together these seemingly unrelated people and places.
By the conclusion of his 13th book (which wraps up a bit differently than the rest), we readers have an almost-complete picture of Snicket’s world. It’s a dark place, to be sure; yet, he faintly illuminates the events that have unfolded—just enough to make us hope for a new beginning beyond “The End.”
Snicket has this ratio down to a science: 12 parts darkness, 1 part light.
Such a unique sensibility is hard to capture on film. Was the 2004 movie able to do it? I answer with conviction: YES. Was Netflix? Well, also yes. Both adaptations had their individual strengths and weaknesses, but both are valuable units of the universe Daniel Handler created. By a comparison of the two, let’s see where each one excelled, and where it had room for improvement.
Paramount’s version has long been one of the most prized movies in my extensive collection, but only recently did I venture into the “Special Features” section of the DVD. Now I’m very glad I did. There, Jim Carrey was given due credit for his contribution as Count Olaf; and frankly, his acting accounts for half the success of the film.
One behind-the-scenes clip shows him in the makeup room. As the artist fits him out with that signature schnoz and that infamous eyebrow, she can’t help but laugh as Carrey rambles about the iconic accent he’s invented for the part: “If you do not want to eat cake by the time I am through talking, I have not done my job.”
This line was not alone in being unscripted.
Rather, director Brad Silberling describes their process this way: Jim Carrey would get into costume as the amateur actor Olaf (or one of the two alter egos he adopts in the movie) and begin to talk. The crew would film him. When he was through, Silberling would watch this recording, take notes, and hand Carrey a script based on what he had just done—with only minor alterations. Thus, the Olaf of the 2004 film is almost 100% the conception of the actor.
When I watch Neil Patrick Harris playing the same part on Netflix, it’s hard to imagine him having half as much fun as Carrey had or exhibiting half as much creativity. His costume certainly resembles Olaf’s original portraits by illustrator Brett Helquist; his script stays true to Snicket’s writing. But even while playing ten different roles within a role, Harris himself is stiff and one-dimensional—especially compared to his versatile and virtuosic predecessor.
At first, I felt the same way about Netflix’s choice for the Baudelaire Orphans. Until this day, I remain quite partial to Emily Browning’s portrayal of the eldest sibling in Paramount’s movie. Not only was she stunning in appearance; her acting too was colorful, multifaceted.
To me, she gave Violet depth that was not readily seen in the books.
Malina Weissman doesn’t bring it to the show, either, until its third and final season. Before that, her face possesses but one expression, and her voice projects almost no modulation. As the storyline expands in scope, however, so does her spectrum of emotion.
Episodes 19 and 20 (“The Slippery Slope,” parts one and two) are where she begins to shine. They seem to dig up Violet’s most tender human sympathies: grief for an apparently lost sibling and the inner conflict of being forced to do what is wrong but necessary.
That shining moment comes much earlier for Louis Hynes as Klaus.
I caught my first glimpse at his emerging mastery of comic timing in episode 13 (“The Vile Village,”, part one). With an obscure word on the tip of his tongue, he meets Hector, a man prone to fainting spells at the sound of anything remotely unpleasant. Hector mentions birds prompting Klaus to shout bluntly, “Murder!” Seeing that the nervous creature is about to faint again, he backpedals and says, “Sorry, that’s the word I was thinking of earlier. ‘Murder’ means a group of crows.”
Though it’s tough to say for sure, I think this may have been the first scene in the whole series that made me laugh out loud. On the other hand, I’m absolutely sure that it bolstered my respect for the actor chosen to play Klaus, and made me want to keep following his story. Since that episode, his skill and his command of the character continued to improve, and I get the sensation that I’ve watched him grow up on-screen.
Netflix thus gave us an opportunity Paramount could not.
Since their show was released over a period of two years (and filmed over a much longer one, no doubt), its child actors undergo the exact transformations described by Snicket in his books. Hynes and Weissman were the same height in the beginning; but when the series concludes, Klaus is noticeably taller than Violet—a realistic development for a boy of his age.
What’s more, Presley Smith starts out as an infant and ends up a toddler. Like she tells her older siblings in “The Slippery Slope,” Sunny Baudelaire is “not a baby” anymore. At this point in the books, Violet observed that Sunny had become a little girl, and so Presley has.
Admittedly, she’s cuter than her predecessors were 15 years ago as well. (Paramount’s Sunny was played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman.) All the young actresses did valiantly, though, considering their age—not to mention the incredible amount of CGI necessary to give them teeth that could slice through rope or slow their fall down an elevator shaft.
Giving the narrator a presence in his story also takes some major innovation.
At least, it does for screen adaptations. And when it comes to Lemony Snicket’s stories, his presence is non-negotiable, for he has weaved himself inextricably into their plot. Paramount tried to include him; Netflix succeeded.
For one thing, they made a far more sensible choice of actor. Don’t get me wrong—I like Jude Law, and I liked his tone in the movie. For instance, there’s a scene where Sunny is about to be eaten by a deadly snake, and just as it lunges for her, the film cuts to Law at his writing desk. “Sorry,” he grumbles, “my typewriter just jammed. Ah, now, where was I?”
Jests like these were in harmony with the twisted humor of Snicket’s books.
And I wasn’t bothered by his being portrayed as an Englishman, either. But now that I’ve seen Patrick Warburton in the same role, I have to hand it to Netflix: Nothing could be more perfect.
He radiates rationality; he’s controlled and coolheaded; and man, does he make that gray suit look good. The irony is, Daniel Handler has surrounded his career with an aura of mystery and anonymity, rarely showing his face to a camera. Now, though, his famous wit has been given both a recognizable face and an intelligent voice.
Inventive cinematography only enhances those features.
From the first, I was impressed by the method used to bring Lemony Snicket into every episode. They all begin with the sound of clacking keys, and a typewritten message “To Beatrice”—taken directly from the dedication of the corresponding book. The curtain then opens on Warburton in some surprising (and usually dangerous) locality, from which he is documenting his latest research about the Baudelaires.
Furthermore, periodically throughout the episode, all action is suspended for a moment to allow him to step into the scene. He tells the audience how he traced the Baudelaires to this place, as well as an amusing anecdote about the mishaps he faced along the way. Snicket included details about these treks between the lines of each book; however, by making him active and visible, Netflix makes the implicit explicit.
This is something Paramount did not even attempt. While they achieved the quintessential Snicket aesthetic by showing a mere silhouette of Jude Law hunched over a typewriter in a shadowy room, the only time we see him on the move is in the final scene—when he packs up his equipment and leaves. We viewers don’t get the impression that he is in pursuit of the orphans; all we know is that he’s been researching them.
In other ways, though, the movie’s vagueness was in its favor.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Unfortunate Events is that no one can say for sure what era it’s supposed to be set in. An absence of modern technologies like television place it in the 1940s or earlier; the speech patterns of some characters seem to betray a later date.
That vibe of chronological ambiguity was well preserved in the film. Its sets, costumes, and dialogue bore the scent of a bygone age, and only a single anachronism was permitted: Mr. Poe’s car phone. (I believe this was inserted merely for comedic value.)
The show, however, could not pin itself down to one decade, which took a certain element of Snicketism away from it. The costumes are a little too modern, the cars a little too antique, and everything else is undecided. It’s so ambiguous, it feels messy—and messiness is not a trait of Handler’s work. Quite the contrary, in fact.
His writing is crisp, deliberate—not a single comma is left to chance.
Netflix exhibits that quality in its own ways, such as its references to other stories within the Snicket universe. “Who could that be at this hour?” asks Olaf in episode 15, paying homage to Handler’s latest young-adult saga All the Wrong Questions (a prequel to Unfortunate). When some characters encounter a sea monster resembling a question mark in 22 and 23, they point out that Lemony Snicket wrote an account about it earlier. By that, they mean A.T.W.Q.
Actually, many more connections are drawn in the Netflix series which time did not permit the movie to bring. The underlying mystery of the acronym V.F.D.—the backbone of every last one of Snicket’s young-adult books—is left unsolved at the rolling of Paramount’s closing credits. That is unfortunate because if they’d been successful enough at the box office to realize their dream of a sequel, I think they could have done a great job.
A story this expansive simply cannot be contained in a feature-length film.
Apparently, though, the Snicket sensibility can. It seeps through every pore of that movie. It’s in Thomas Newman’s heartbreaking score, and Jude Law’s tender speech about the word “sanctuary.” It’s in our last glimpse of the Baudelaire orphans—asleep on each other’s shoulders as they ride to a new destination, where the unknown awaits them.
Snicket’s humor is there too, as it is in the show. There’s the paperboy who unexpectedly bursts into rooms on his bicycle, tosses a newspaper at someone, and is gone before we can see his face. There’s the impeccable timing of K. Todd Freeman’s coughing fits. And of course, Warburton’s on-point facial expressions. Using these and many other devices, Netflix dragged out of me the same awe-inspired laughter I had offered so freely when reading Handler’s books.
So, who wins the prestigious B.J. Frances Award for Best Adaptation?
Lemony Snicket has created something so endearing, so enduring, that it can’t fail to amaze us no matter what form it takes. The book, the movie, the TV serial—they have all added a vibrant thread to the rich tapestry he started to weave 20 years ago.
I have a suspicion it isn’t finished yet.
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