Probably one of the earliest memories I have of being disappointed by a movie I was previously excited to see was 2003’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I was a child, sure, but I was also a child who had previously read the three books that film consolidates; The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window. The film is noble in its efforts to create a gothic, high-quality adaptation starring one of the most renowned comic actors of the time, Jim Carrey, but even it retrospect it doesn't totally stick the landing. Not only that, it didn’t get quite the box office return it aspired towards either (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets hit theaters the Thanksgiving before), and a sequel was never officially green lit. Despite there being a whopping ten more books in the series to adapt, the project was left in limbo for over a decade. Carrey was also reportedly resistant to reprise his role as the villain Count Olaf because of his policy to never play a character a second time.
All this to say: the world will disappoint you, ceaselessly, and that’s the central theme of Lemony Snicket’s borderline-classic novels. It’s very apparent in Netflix’s adaptation of the series that even over a decade after the books finished their initial publication, the world continues to be a dark place with terrible traitors and lawless liars.
Squarely out of the shadows of the events in the 2003 film, it grows harder and harder to compare the two. The continuing misadventures of the Baudelaire Orphans in Season 2 brings them to more dimwitted guardians, anxiety-filled problems, and relentless disappointment. The show follows a general format as the serialized novels did. It’s campy; relying mostly on Neil Patrick Harris kinda career-defining performance as Count Olaf, whose disguises require Harris to turn in a performance you can’t quite find in any other show on television today. It’s audacious and self-aware, giving layered depth to wild, almost stereotypical caricatures that exist, but had never been committed to media, before. Especially the first disguise, Coach Genghis, would be borderline offensive if wasn't for the Floridan accident he puts on, giving layer and depth to a thin guise.
Yes, the TV format thins the overall budget a bit, but it allows the show to breathe a little more and build the small but expansive universe it lives in. Production designer Bo Welch, perhaps best known for his work on Edward Scissorhands, makes the absolute most of designing an intentionally vague setting. Its time-period is opaque, it seems to take place in North America, but it all just kind of exists in a universe of its own. It leans on the viewer’s memories of a past they may not have experienced, but recognize all the same to fill in gaps. This gives the entire show the feeling that you're not only watching an adaptation of a children's novel, but the show evokes the memory of reading as a child, forced to fill in contextual blanks you're not fully capable of understanding.
Series developer Barry Sonnerfeld, known for his work as the Coen Brother’s cinematographer, and director of The Addams Family and the Men in Black franchise, tackles the undertaking of adapting 13 books over 3 TV seasons with such patience, taking its time developing subplots and making its otherwise genuinely shocking twists a little more obvious for younger viewers. All this to say, as an adult, the show is totally entertaining on its own.
What's most shocking to me is its cultural relevancy today. The first season premiered a week after the current administration was inaugurated. Times feel dark and dour to many, and like the Baudelaire children many felt abandoned by their respective worlds. For fans of the novels, whimsical adults, and young people who are old enough to be aware, but too young to do anything about their world around them, the show is a place of solace. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a Tim Burton-like gothic hug that comforts and says "it's okay, we'll figure it out tomorrow."
A Series of Unfortunate Events seasons 1 and 2 are streaming in full on Netflix.
Tyler Scruggs is a writer and musician living in Atlanta with his partner Mark. When he’s not churning out internet content, he’s paying too much for coffee and buying movie tickets week in advance. Feel free to validate him on Instagram (@Scruggernaut), Twitter (@TylerScruggs), or on Scruff (you’ll know it when you see it).