Long story short, A Series of Unfortunate Events finally got the cinematic treatment it so richly deserved, and the Netflix series by and large delivered on a huge scale, gratifying longtime fans of the 13-book series. Unlike their (weaker, lamer) Harry Potter counterparts, fans of the Lemony Snicket books had to suffer through a deeply subpar adaptation through the 2004 Brad Silberling film adaptation starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf.
Fortunately, this time the gripes to be made are few and far between with Daniel Handler (the real Lemony Snicket) at the helm as both executive producer, writer of most episodes of the series, and the occasional Hitchcock-style cameo. All-in-all, the Netflix show is satisfying experience for a demanding superfan who analyzed the original books in countless different ways. Being better than the 2004 movie wasn’t that hard, but here’s exactly six ways this new Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate Events totally nailed it.
6. The Plot
One of the most offensive mishaps in the 2004 film was its disregard of the sequence in which the story was told. While the movie covered the first three books of the series and the Netflix show encompasses four, the movie jumped around between plots at liberty, ending the film with a sequence from the first book in spite of already having spent the contents of the second and third. This time around, they learn from their mistakes, dedicating two full 45-minute episodes to each book, which more or less plays out in sequence. Is it a little long at times? Sure, but that’s the nature of every Netflix adaptation in history. Brevity, gang, brevity.
5. Foreshadowing Future Stories
The movie did vaguely reference forthcoming plot elements for the sequels that would never come, specifically a veiled reference to the V.F.D spy organization, which slowly becomes a prominent theme in the books beginning in the fifth installment. However, the Netflix adaptation has the benefit of Daniel Handler, and the references embedded in the series have the advantage of both being followed-up on in later episodes and including nods to the prequel series that Snicket released after the 2004 film was released, All the Wrong Questions. In fact, there are entire characters added into the story to hit the V.F.D. point home — that part is maybe a little heavy-handed, but we’ve got to trust Handler to take care of us on this one.
4. Count Olaf
Okay, hot take: Neil Patrick Harris’s Count Olaf isn’t perfect. There are times, particularly in the opening songs, where he’s Neil Patrick Harris-ing out a little too hard, and the theme songs are reminiscent of his Dr. Horrible days in a way that doesn’t exactly agree with me. That said, he blows Jim Carrey’s self-indulgent 2004 performance out of the water handily and appears to at least have read the books and understands the character he’s playing. But no actor has been able to to strike the balance between sinister and silly that the Snicket books match perfectly. Harris knows what he’s doing and knows the material (also serving alongside Handler as an executive producer on the series), and he’s the Count Olaf we’ve got for the next two seasons. Most importantly, he is not Jim Carrey. Do I hate Jim Carrey? I might hate Jim Carrey.
The world of the 2004 Baudelaire orphans was devoid of color not only in optimism but in people, with people of color appearing few and far between. This is a problem resolved by the Netflix series handily with a number of critical roles played by people of color: K. Todd Freeman and Cleo King as Mr. and Mrs. Poe, Aasif Mandvhi’s brilliant portrayal of herpetologist Uncle Monty, and Alfre Woodward’s Aunt Josephine. It looks like Handler and company have gotten with the times in a story where the exact time period is indeterminate.
2. Daniel Handler
In such a tonally specific series, the 2004 adaptation failed pretty exclusively because of the author’s distance from the project. As legend has it, Handler drafted a screenplay for the Carrey vehicle that was rejected, and the story cycled through a number of Hollywood screenwriters before the manufactured garbage pile was produced. Daniel Handler has come out a number of times speaking about his disappointment in the first adaptation, and the lesson learned is that when you want it done right, you’ve got to insist on being involved. This time around, he nailed it. Not only does the author write six out of the eight episodes in the first season (calling them teleplays like he’s Paddy Chayefsky or something), he also executive produced and made a cameo in The Wide Window as a fish salesman. He manages to (spoilers) embed narrative clues to the V.F.D. schism and the fate of the Baudelaire parents in addition to a massive added in narrative fake-out involving the parents of the Quagmire triplets, who appear in the last scene of the last episode and will take on a more prominent role in Seasons 2 and 3.
Patrick Warburton absolutely takes the cake as the more aptly cast member of the ASOUE bunch as narrator Lemony Snicket, played by a limp and passionless Jude Law in the 2004 adaptation. As the series’s critical, unreliable narrator with a penchant for defining SAT words and lamenting his lost love Beatrice, Warburton nails the part perfectly, entering mid-scene to deliver verbatim lines of Snicket dialogue exactly as the author intended. In case you spent the first two episodes desperately trying to figure out where you’ve heard his voice before, I’ll save you the trouble: He’s the voice of my child cartoon crush Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, and more notably as Joe in Family Guy. Here’s to hoping A Series of Unfortunate Events will be his swan song.
Of course, the series has its shortcomings: the child actors in the first movie were a little better suited to the part, and I can’t help but prefer the set dressing from 2004 to the pastels of the new series. And with all due respect to Alfre Woodward, there is no beating Meryl Streep’s interpretation of Aunt Josephine.
Still, this is what fans of the books have been waiting for: a faithful adaptation of a series that never got the appreciation it deserved and produced to the satisfaction of its creator. Here’s to Season 2. The world is quiet here.