Children’s books have always made good material for both movie and television adaptations, but there have never been children’s books quite like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The stories are delightfully dark, with events both horrible and hilarious as the three Baudelaire children — Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny — must learn to protect themselves from the adults in their lives interested in exploiting them.
Orphaned when their parents died in a fire, the Baudelaire children are sent to live with their nearest living relative, Count Olaf. But Olaf is only interested in stealing the children’s large inheritance, which they’ll receive in four years when Violet turns 18. The premiere follows his various, dastardly attempts, from imprisoning the young Baudelaires to trying to marry Violet, and the rest of the series eventually sees them go to live with other relatives while Olaf continues making their lives as miserable as possible.
Part cautionary tale, part coming-of-age adventure — but mostly just an absurdist and wonderfully weird story — Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events adapts the first four books of the series across eight episodes. Neil Patrick Harris stars as the horrid Count Olaf, with Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith as the Baudelaires: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. And in a move that’s straight from the books, Patrick Warburton plays Lemony Snicket himself (an identity that’s actually the pen name of author Daniel Handler), narrating each episode and — just as Snicket does throughout the novels — repeatedly urging us to look away.
Having Warburton’s Snicket freely walk in and out of scenes like he’s Rod Serling from The Twilight Zone works brilliantly, with each dryly delivered line perfectly translating the book’s narration for the screen and his mere presence reminding us of the story’s unbelievable nature. It’s a neat element used to great effect throughout the premiere. Warburton plays Snicket as a man forced with relaying to us this terrible but true (though obviously not really true) story, being both against sharing it and compelled to do so. Unsurprisingly, Warburton does this effortlessly, letting his character be sympathetic to the Baudelaire children’s plight and at the same time far removed from it.
Snicket works to not only help move along the story, book-ending many scenes, but that duality in his nature is something of a template that just about all of the adult characters follow. Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the executor of the Baudelaire’s will, does help the children but in such a hurried fashion he doesn’t even think through that “closest living relative” probably doesn’t mean geographically; his wife can’t imagine why the children wouldn’t want the whole town to know they’re being looked after, using their unfortunate circumstances as front page news; and Count Olaf, well, his duplicity is written on his sleeve (or rather ankle) as his interest in the Baudelaire children has absolutely nothing to do with their well-being.
That practically every adult is terrible and no good does, at times, seem to be the message coming across, especially when seen from the perspective of the Baudelaire children – each very bright and talented in their own way, even baby Sunny. But while the series likes to feature the children constantly being talked down to, often by having some vocabulary unnecessarily explained (though what a great vocab builder that bit can also be), there is at least one adult who doesn’t initially appear to be utterly awful: Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack). She’s still a quirky character, to be sure, but in her seems to be actual consideration for the children – even if she’s just as blind to the truth about Count Olaf and his custody. She’s kind and caring and has an enormous library; she’s basically the perfect caregiver for the Baudelaire’s and therefor an instant to foil to Olaf.
Olaf is a tricky character. He’s vile and cruel, he has a menace about him, threatening that he’ll go to any lengths to get what he wants. He’s also very funny, often in a really insensitive manner but still funny. At the core of Olaf, though, he’s a pathetic character. It’s clear he’s amounted to nothing, his mansion is in ruins, and while the song he performs is actually pretty good (a side effect of casting NPH), his plan to steal the Baudelaire fortune just reeks of desperation. And yet through all of this he remains an enthralling character, keeping our attention as we wonder just what despicable thing he’ll do next.
Harris is fantastic in the role, never letting his performance become too much of a caricature – which is really saying something when the character is this absurd. Much like Warburton’s deadly serious Snicket, Harris throws himself into Count Olaf full stop, selling every sneer and glare. It is literally a transformative performance (requiring some fantastic prosthetics) and it’s unlike anything Harris has done before. Of course, when you cast someone as talented as Harris, you’re practically guaranteed a knockout performance, and his Olaf is easily the best part of the premiere.
Netflix’s biggest hit in years was last summer’s Stranger Things and much credit was deservedly given to that show’s child actors. A Series of Unfortunate Events also stars three young actors and just like Stranger Things they are very much the heart of the show. Obviously, it’s Weissman and Hynes who do the bulk of the work, but even infant Smith gives a charming performance. The Baudelaires are not only our protagonists, they are the only sensible characters in the whole series. It’s a bit of a reverse but one that children’s stories often employ, having the children be more responsible than the adults, but here that reversal is ratcheted up to ridiculous levels. Less believable child actors wouldn’t be able to pull this off nearly as well as Wiessman and Hynes, as they flip between exasperation to indignation to even, on occasion, portraying a glimmer of hope.
The dialogue in this premiere episode is witty and clever, and at times there are lines that go by so quickly you may need to rewind just to catch the joke (something that’s so much easier to do with a book). Not that any of this should be too surprising seeing as Handler himself penned the script. The premiere is also directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who is no stranger to gothic fantasies, having directed classics like The Addams Family and Addam’s Family Values. He was also heavily involved in the short-lived series, Pushing Daisies, and the quirkiness of that show plays a definite influence here. The production design is intricately detailed, with Olaf’s mansion in particular being both disgusting and strangely beautiful. There’s a little CGI used and just by the fact that it’s so noticeable it’s clearly not the series’ strongest asset, but it’s used sparingly.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is definitely a worthy adaptation of the books, and comparisons to the 2004 film shouldn’t even become a factor. The series has what makes for a truly great children’s story: a willingness not to shy away from the awful, terrible, and unfortunates events that happen in life. In fact, they’re a core tenet of the series, but it’s through watching the Baudelaire children muddle through in spite of them that makes A Series of Unfortunate Events an unexpectedly uplifting story.
A Series of Unfortunate Events first season is now available to stream on Netflix.