Adapting the first four of a thirteen book saga, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS encapsulates everything that made the source material so enchanting – lifting much of its dialogue and direction right from the pages – and binds it all together in a stylish, satisfying series that not only does justice to the books, but builds upon them, creating new mysteries and miseries to keep everyone guessing.
Back in 2004, Jim Carrey starred as Count Olaf in a feature film that loosely adapted the first three books of Lemony Snicket’s sorrowful series into a fun, if not entirely faithful, foray into the unfortunate events that surround the Baudelaire orphans. Playing up the villain’s acting history, Carrey played Olaf as a blustering buffoon with a slight mean streak, but never really presented him as a genuine monster.
Fast forward thirteen years, and this time it’s How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris donning the bushy eyebrow of Olaf, in a performance that feels foreign, yet familiar all in the same breath. Where Carrey’s clownish Count was infused with the actor’s own brand of manic energy, Harris’ Olaf, while still comically pompous, is much more menacing, less of a clown and more a sociopath with a flair for theatrics, delivering an altogether more compelling villain.
Utilising his Broadway credentials, Harris not only delivers a broad performance with all the disguises that Count Olaf adopts during his evil schemes, but also lends his considerable pipes to the opening credits, singing a delightful ditty that warns any and all viewers to look away immediately – only the first step into the dreary, unfortunate world of Lemony Snicket. Satisfyingly, when the show reaches the start of a new book (Each of the four is adapted into two episodes apiece) certain lyrics are changed to fit the current plight of the Baudelaire orphans, keeping the sequence from getting too stale.
Harris’ Olaf is less of a clown and more a sociopath with a flair for theatrics, delivering an altogether more compelling villain.
Working across from Harris’ money-grubbing Olaf are the ill-fated, ingenious, immeasurably unlucky orphans; Violet, Klaus and Sunny (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith respectively). As hard as it may be to perform opposite the cavalcade of conniving criminals that seek to separate the orphans from their parents’ enormous fortune, Weissman and Hynes more than hold their own with an intoxicating combination of childlike innocence and world-weary wisdom. Sunny, despite being the cute baby who gurgles nonsense and makes everyone smile (all babbling provided by venerable voice actor, Tara Strong), is actually given quite a lot to do, making her feel more like a member of team Baudelaire, rather than another obstacle for her siblings to overcome.
The exquisite supporting cast that round out this bleak and brutal world each bring a new element to the episodes they inhabit. With each book adapted, the series injects a new art style to capture not only the tone of the show, but to also reflect the personality of the current guardian that the Baudelaire’s find themselves with. Uncle Monty (Aasif Mandvi), for instance, is a cheerful, eccentric herpetologist with a strong will and an impressive moustache. As such, he surrounds himself with brightly coloured, quirky reptiles, including a certain broken-hearted crocodile whose mating call sounds uncannily like a miserable person saying “woe is me” over and over. Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard), on the other hand, is a grammar obsessed widow with an intense fear of everything, so the scenery is very dark and foreboding, and her house is cold because she’s afraid that a single lit candle might burn the place to the ground.
Outside the list of potential guardians, the screen is filled with superb characters such as the imbecilic banker Mr Poe (K. Todd Freeman) with his persistent cough and the instantly lovable neighbour, Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack) who seems instantly out of place in this otherwise cruel and uncaring world. None of the side characters, however, manage to bring more charm and flair to the series than the narrator of the show, Lemony Snicket.
Brought from the page by Patrick Warburton, Snicket, the master of melancholy, wanders through the events of the show with a detached sense of desolation, commenting often that he is far to late to offer any help to the Baudelaires, and is merely following his sworn duty to fully document the series of unfortunate events that befell the ill-fated orphans. When he isn’t delivering deadpan exposition or explaining the definition of a certain phrase (a word here meaning a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit), he can be found dropping a series of sardonic comments, mostly drawn directly from the source material, usually in reference to the comparatively dim-witted adults that the Baudelaire’s are forced to contend with.
Snicket, the master of melancholy, wanders through the events of the show with a detached sense of desolation.
Snicket’s sarcasm isn’t the only thing that is brought from the books – in fact, barring a few new additions, the vast majority of the show is. From dialogue used between characters to plot points followed exactly as they were presented on the page, the faithfulness to the original work is palpable. Little details such as the dedications from the books (“To Beatrice – Darling, dearest, dead.”) are included at the start of each episode, and offer not only a small insight into the life of the mysterious Lemony Snicket, but also work as yet another element that builds a rich, detailed world to fill with misery.
These little elements being included are due in no small part to the presence of writer/executive producer, Daniel Handler. That name may not be familiar, but he’s already been mentioned several times in the last few paragraphs. Under the Pseudonym of Lemony Snicket, it was Handler who first documented the unfortunate events that befell the Baudelaires, and his influence over the tone of the show is extremely prevalent. Not only is Handler’s involvement vital to ensure that his books are brought to screen in a satisfactory manner, he also adds in an extremely intriguing sub-plot that is brand new to all viewers, and fits perfectly into the core themes of the show.
Between the excellent cast and razor sharp script, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS emerges as the adaption that the books truly deserved, with enough character and tension to appeal to hardcore fans and new viewers alike. Despite the warnings echoed throughout the first series, the most unfortunate event of all would be for any would-be watchers to not bear witness to this preeminent production.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles