With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them press escalating to a high-pitched scream and sales for The Cursed Child sending adults into a nostalgic anaphylactic shock rivaling that of Pokémon Go, somebody needs to stand up. No, not stand up to praise J.K. Rowling for tweeting something about how one of her characters should have been with another character. Focus, people – the Netflix A Series of Unfortunate Events series is coming out in mere months and no one is talking about it; someone needs to stand up for justice.
As a book series, Rowling’s Harry Potter still isn’t better than Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and it is my calling in life to tell you why.
For those of you who need a refresher, A Series of Unfortunate Events is the 13-book series chronicling the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire orphans, Klaus, Sunny and Violet; there was an attempt to turn it into a movie series, but the first film, in 2004, didn’t make enough money. The American public just didn’t know what it was missing.
The story follows the orphans who, after losing their parents in a mysterious fire, are failed by guardian after guardian while being relentlessly pursued by the greedy Count Olaf, who ostensibly wants to steal their deceased family’s fortune. As the series continues to unfold, an entire meta-narrative unfolds that links the cast of characters into a sinister secret organizations, forcing the orphans, the villain, and even the narrator himself to evaluate what constitutes good and evil.
Let’s boil it down to three points: the protagonists, the villain, and the narrative tone, all of which leave Rowling effectively avada kedavra’ed at her own game.
The most common criticism of the Unfortunate Events series are the repetitive narrative early in the series - the orphans get a new guardian, are pursued by Count Olaf, something tragic happens to their guardian, they’re moved to the next place. But the same argument could be made for the first three books in the Potter series, and in both cases makes it all the more powerful to a young reader when this narrative pattern is broken. Later in the series, it is the Baudelaire orphans who make the conscious decision to break the pattern of the adult guardians who continue to fail them in spite of good intentions, and strike out on their own.
Harry Potter is the perfect hero in a kid’s series because, with few exceptions, he is without flaw, always on the right side of history and bland enough to be an agent that a reader can easily plug themselves into. The Baudelaires, by comparison, have personalities distinct and make some extremely bad choices throughout the Unfortunate Events series - the children are given agency and are empowered by their own skills; Violet is a fourteen-year-old inventor, Klaus the researcher and resident brain, and baby Sunny the sharp-toothed infant turned burgeoning chef.
Though their loyalties ultimately lie with one another, as with the Potter crew, the Baudelaires are sometimes forced to make difficult decisions in the interest of survival. As the series progresses, the Baudelaires burn down both a hospital and a hotel, break out of jail, and eventually must ally themselves with Count Olaf himself to survive, all difficult decisions that are analyzed in the narrative.
Violet, Klaus and Sunny mature through the series much like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but are repeatedly forced to fend for themselves entirely after being failed by the adults and systems put in place to protect them. They do so using their own wits, challenging the reader not only to develop skill sets themselves, but to look at their own actions critically.
The Potter universe contains many of the same elements. As that seven-book series progressed, we’re introduced to a history of secret alliances and shady pasts, and our characters mature and make sometimes compromising choices. But it’s the combination of literary savvy, high-brow humor and narrative complicatedness that Snicket brings to the table leaves J.K. Rowling as the Coldplay to Snicket’s Pixies.
The Narrative Tone
Snicket’s use of meta-narrative and reference told through the first-person narration of the author himself, who becomes a more prominent character looming over the Baudelaire’s lives as the series goes on, is nothing short of masterful. While Rowling sticks to a straightforward third person account, Snicket assumes a sophistication in his reader that’s rarely afforded to a nine-year-old; he’s a part of the story, but it’s not immediately clear how. Some subtle payoffs include the references to a mysterious “Beatrice,” Snicket’s lost love who appears to be connected to the Baudelaires, the presence of his siblings Jacques and Kit throughout the series, and the constant question of why this unfortunate journalist feels compelled to write about the orphans in the first place.
By the end of the sixth book, the meta-narrative nearly swallows the series whole as the Baudelaire orphans discover the existence of a secret organization called VFD that links their deceased parents to Count Olaf, explains the tattoo of an eye on the villain’s ankle, and whose long-ago schism force the kids to face not only whether the organization is good or evil, but whether their own beloved parents were. The answer is complicated, but the way that Snicket weaves all the bizarre characters from the first half of the series into the history of VFD is seamless.
Yes, J.K. Rowling has clearly taken a Latin class, and good on her, but Snicket’s books are a veritable encyclopedia to readers who are looking to unpack the multiple references disguised in character names, narrator commentary or even hidden within the baby talk of the youngest Baudelaire, Sunny. As a kid, I would read the books next to a Google window at school and try to figure out what was hidden inside the story - how the Quagmire triplets Isadora and Duncan were a hidden reference to a famous dancer, how Klaus and Sunny’s names were referring to a famous criminal case, how the children used passages from Anna Karenina to save their skin or how the series’ opening at Briny Beach is connected to the pleasant walk and pleasant talk that Lewis Carroll was talking about in The Walrus and the Carpenter.
Hell, Snicket even criticizes literature in text, repeatedly heaping shade on Victorian author Edgar Guest for being boring and overrated. Its well-chronicled at this point, but Snicket’s books weren’t merely interesting narrative - to the fifth grade reader who didn’t know who Leo Tolstoy or Charles Baudelaire were when starting, it was a literary education.
There’s a level of humor present in Snicket’s narrative that exists almost nowhere else in children’s literature. Where most humor series resort to the (yes, hilarious) easy shots like those in the Captain Underpants series, Snicket manages to inject humor into his storytelling through a series of bizarre anecdotes (being hit with a poison dart at a masked ball, leaving the narrative to go to a dinner party, engulfing two full pages in black to emphasize how dark an elevator shaft was) and high-brow references. Count Olaf’s ridiculous disguises often provide an easy visual gag, and the orphan’s environment itself is littered with inside jokes - a restaurant called The Anxious Clown, waiters dressed as salmon, a reptile expert named Monty who raises pythons, an entire storyline based on what’s “in” and what’s “out.””
But sure, Hagrid made that joke about a dragon once, that was cool.
Yes, He Who Must Not Be Named does get a pretty fascinating back story in the Potter series, but can’t hold a candle to the bizarre mix of humor, vanity and pitiful qualities that is the Unfortunate Events antagonist Count Olaf. Olaf is introduced in The Bad Beginning as an evil man with a tattoo of an eye on his ankle who tries to marry Violet, a fourteen-year-old girl, in an attempt to secure the Baudelaire fortune.
This cartoonish villain is revealed gradually through the series, eventually trading in silly disguises like female receptionist or gym teacher with a turban to pursue the orphans as himself, using the people around him to manipulate the orphans as they learn about his history with VFD. We learn that there was a time that Count Olaf and the Baudelaire parents worked together for what they classified as “the greater good,” to keep the world safe and well-read, but were torn apart (along with the Snicket siblings) when a devastating schism within the organization caused some to go underground and others to pursue revenge. We learn that he’s in love with Lemony Snicket’s sister but is also capable of murdering in cold blood, that he’s ruthless but softened by the loss of an associate.
Olaf’s eventual arc in the 13th book, which (spoilers) connects him to both the Snicket and Baudelaire family history more closely that the reader could ever imagine, leaves one genuinely sad about his fate. Potter’s narrative heavily relies on the concept that good will always conquer evil no matter how many elderly gay wizards tragically die in the process, but Snicket’s absurdist work addresses reality over fantasy as in the whole of his work - there’s no clear answer of what good is.
In Count Olaf’s character is the core thesis of Snicket’s work - no one is completely good, or completely evil. They are, as Snicket brilliantly states in The Grim Grotto, “like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
So why is ASOUE only getting its due now?
The short answer: yeah, that 2004 movie happened.
By the time the first attempt at A Series of Unfortunate Events movie was made, the Potter franchise was three movies deep and had spawned a storm of horny pre-teens lusting after their first non-cartoon crush. It was already common knowledge that author J.K. Rowling oversaw the specifics of the film very carefully, frequently coaching actors, ensuring that an all-British cast was selected and above all, making sure the movies closely reflected the books.
This attention to detail was a service denied to the Brad Silberling-directed ASOUE in 2004. Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket proper) had written a full screenplay for the project that was promptly tossed out in favor of combining the first three books in the series in a fractured, out of order sequence that puts more emphasis on its box office drawers (primarily Jim Carrey) than its source material. Carrey himself is the biggest problem in the troubled movie, turning Olaf into a cartoonish, hapless villain more interested in funny voices than a developed character. While other cast members pull their own weight, the clunkiness of the storytelling and Carrey’s self-indulgent performance ultimately cost the movie a successful franchise.
Listen, my beauties. The day is almost here. The most intelligent children’s series of our time has gotten a second chance at life through a Netflix series, a second chance at a thoughtfully portrayed Olaf, and a second chance for you to realize how silly you were to fly across the country to go to that dumb theme park. Lay your three hundred dollar novelty wands down and direct your eyes to the new frontier, the streaming services that are dominating everything that’s good about television.
In Snicket we pray.