Yes, it’s finally here, the television event we have been waiting for: Netflix’s new adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was released, aptly, this Friday the 13th. But did this new version, spearheaded by Neil Patrick Harris, live up to fan expectation? Or, more specifically, the prayers of fans that it would be better than the ill-fated 2004 movie version?
NOTE: This review deals only with the first two episodes, which follows the plot of The Bad Beginning. Yes, we know, we know: we’re trying to pace ourselves.
Before we even began watching, we had high hopes for this version, simply due to the structural decision of dedicating two forty-five minute episodes to each book, which allows for a much fuller imagining of the original books than Jim Carrey’s film, which had only a fraction more time and yet decided to tackle three books in one, meaning we barely got to see the Baudelaire children in Count Olaf’s clutches before they got whisked away (only to end up there again in a bizarre restructuring of narrative events), meaning as an audience, we barely got to scratch the surface of Count Olaf’s eccentricity to see the true menace which lies beneath. In this version, however, it felt like there was time for the plot to breathe, a lot of which was effectively used by Patrick Warburton, playing Lemony Snicket, whose repeated earnest suggestions that we turn over to watch something more cheerful only made us want to watch more. The fact that Warburton’s Snicket freely roamed the set, often standing directly beside the Baudelaire orphans yet unable to do anything but narrate their story, as is his “solemn duty”, gave the story the same sense of tragic inevitability and irony which is intrinsic to the success of the books.
One of our highlights of the first two episodes is the way in which it shows that not only is Count Olaf a terrible person, so are the majority of the other characters, encouraging children to be critical of the things adults say and leaving the Baudelaire orphans as beacons of light in their possession of moral compasses and their ability to use reasoning. This is most notably done through Mr Poe (K Todd Freeman) and his wife (Cleo King). Mr Poe, in a direct reflection of Count Olaf’s later actions, forgets that the children are in fact different ages as he drives the children to Count Olaf’s house, foreshadowing his later dismissal of their concerns when they visit them at the bank, where he ignorantly categorises their complaints of physical and emotional abuse as nothing more than childish whining. And Mrs Poe, in one of our favourite scenes (which to be honest we weren’t expecting at all, due to there being no equivalent scene in the film version), cheerfully asks the Baudelaire orphans to vocalise their grief because it will “make a wonderful headline”, comically parodying the media’s use of emotional exploitation to sell newspapers and further isolating the Baudelaires. Even Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack), who is often considered to be a beacon of hope for the children, later becoming a bitter memory of the life they could have had, dismisses the Baudelaires’ concerns, blinded by the chance to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming an actress.
This review would not be complete if we didn’t talk about the twist which came at the end of the first episode: the Baudelaire parents are in fact alive, and desperate to get back to their children (who we have, in fact, been wrongly calling the Baudelaire orphans throughout this review.) We cannot wait to see how this revelation, particularly due to the fact that the end of the second episode saw them plotting their escape from wherever it is they are currently being held, effects the plot as the series progresses. Our guess is that they will meet up with the so far incredibly badass VFD member Jacquelyn and make repeated failed attempts to get in contact with their children and save them from Count Olaf, which would be in equal parts thrilling and frustrating, in keeping with the tragic projection of the series we know and love but injecting a much-needed new element to keep viewers on their toes.
Now, we don’t want anyone to think that this is a slam piece against the 2004 film. Personally, we sorely miss The Littlest Elf, and the original film had plenty of good elements, including the ineffective but well-meaning Mr Poe and the humorous exchanges between Sunny and Count Olaf. We are also under no illusions that this version is absolutely perfect. One niggle we had was the amount of green screen special effects which were used throughout, which made it hard to feel involved in the action, but as this was mainly used to show the idyllic street on which Count Olaf’s mansion is placed in stark juxtaposition, it could be argued that the obvious nature of the green screen is designed to remind the audience of the falseness and temporality of this idyllic world, at least in the life of the Baudelaire orphans. Perhaps we’re reading into that too much though, and it was just bad effects? Overall, we believe that the episodic nature of the books is more suited to being shown through the episodic structure afforded by Netflix, and while we’re not sure if any filmed adaptation could ever fully capture the magic of this treasured book series, this version is certainly doing a very good job and we cannot wait to see where it goes from here. We’re particularly excited for The Miserable Mill, where the team have been given a free slate, as it were – we’re sure Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf as Shirley will be a joy to behold, if his small scene as Jessica Haircut in The Bad Beginning was anything to go by! Watch this space!