As a kid, I loved the Lemony Snicket books upon which the new Netflix series is based. Well, I loved and hated them. You see, I was scared of the dark until many years after my age would have excused the phobia. The strange world of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sent me to bed with nightmares of oompa loompas turning me into a blueberry. Dramatic irony was not something my overly-sensitive heart could take if I thought someone was actually going to be literally or figuratively hurt.
So imagine my mother’s surprise when I brought home Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events for a family read-aloud. We all fell in love with the books (and I secretly found a new embodiment of terror in Count Olaf). Their masterful blend of suspense and wordplay, humor and grown-up seriousness, made for a fantastic read-aloud. The books didn’t pull any punches. They were hilarious and horrifying, sadistic and silly. A more paradoxical series had never been read in my childhood home. (Curious? You can find the full series on Amazon: The Complete Wreck (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Books 1-13) )
I remember being excited for the Jim Carey film adaptation in 2004, and somewhat underwhelmed by the end result. So I was cautious with my excitement when I heard Netflix was doing their own adaptation of the series. Long-form TV makes much more sense for telling these stories than a movie did, so I was hopeful.
Netflix’s take on A Series of Unfortunate Events beautifully retells the dreadful story of the three Baudelaire siblings as they try to make sense of the death of their parents while trying to stay out of the clutches of the vile Count Olaf (played by the incredible Neil Patrick Harris this time around). That’s all I’m going to say about the story, because any mystery worth its salt deserves to be enjoyed without too many outside hints. And this is a mystery worth a great deal of salt.
The production design is meticulous in its manifestation of the vaguely steampunk, slightly surreal world of the Baudelaire orphans. It’s what I imagine would happen if Tim Burton, Roald Dahl, and Marvin the Robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy got together to make a television show. Spots of bright color pop up every now and then in the otherwise drab color palette, creating moments of poignant hope and happiness. Quick draw editing transitions add storyboard moments, which highlight clues for the perceptive viewer. Bringing it all together is a fantastic script that allows a star-studded cast to shine.
In a rare and unexpected triumph, this adaptation from book to screen seems to have actually improved on the original source material (while never losing sight of what made the books so charming in the first place). Themes of loss, grief, struggle, and hardship are framed with moments of bright hope as the children piece together the story of what happened to their parents. Every time things seem hopeless, Klaus, the middle child and bookworm of the family, has a beautiful quote from a poet or philosopher to push back the gloom. But where the books portrayed the children as simply soldiering on bravely from unfortunate event to unfortunate event, the show adds some warm-hearted agency to their struggle.
When the children are brave in the face of impossible sadness, they help those around them be brave. When the children choose to work their way out of an impossible problem, they become stronger. These moments, dim in the book, shine with earnest, earned optimism in the show. At the climax of the season, Violet asks, “What’s that thing Samuel Beckett said?” Klaus replies, “ I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” She takes his hand and concludes, “Let’s go on together.” All these steps of growth, from innocent children battered by the world to strong individuals who can make a difference, trace a mystery that is much more coherent and compelling than the one presented in the ink and paper version.
Even better, the show evokes a wondrous world of learning, providing the Baudelaire children with an almost supernatural ability to overcome obstacles. They are not super strong or smart or rich. They are just ready to learn and unafraid to try. Throughout the season, they learn about the law, herpetology, and grammar. Philosophy and poetry are sprinkled through every episode. These disciplines, dull as they may seem to some children without the benefit of a stirring narrative framework, are embraced by the Baudelaires with such a passion that they become magical and fascinating pieces in the puzzle that is their life. As an adult, I loved the show for its story and its heart. As an educator I loved the show for the plethora of conversation opportunities woven through this exquisite (a word which here means exemplary, special, and of unusually high quality) adaptation. I can hardly wait to see what is next in this excellent series of unfortunate events.
About Our Rating System:
The Loresworn Order reviews games, movies, TV, books, and music on a four-point scale.
- No Medal, “Not Recommended”
- Bronze, “Okay”
- Silver, “Good!”
- Gold, “Great!”