Fiona Longmuir makes no bones about being a Lemony Snicket fan since she was a teen. But does the new Netflix series make her shiver with pleasure?
I would like to tell you that I spent my weekend in a joyous fashion. A picnic, perhaps, in a green meadow, with lambs gambolling and delicious sandwiches and no nefarious interruptions. I would like to tell you this.
But, dear reader, I am a writer. And as a writer, it is my solemn duty to tell you what really happened, no matter how… unfortunate. If you would prefer not to read about attractive orphans, steampunk set designs and a dastardly band of scheming villains, I advise that you look away now and choose something more pleasant to peruse. If you make this choice, you still have half a chance at having a Very Fine Day.
I’m not sure there is a literary voice so immediately recognisable, so instantly familiar to me as that of A Series of Unfortunate Events’s deadpan, despairing narrator, Lemony Snicket. His voice punctuated my teen years, bringing tragic new tales of the Baudelaire orphans that I could never put down, even as he warned me off.
This voice and its faithfulness to the books is where the new Netflix adaptation of Snicket’s novels draws its strength. Where previous adaptations shied away from the maudlin darkness of the books, the Netflix series delights in it.
Patrick Warburton takes to the screen as the enigmatic narrator, interrupting every so often to define a word, tell a mysterious story or implore the watcher to please for the love of god, stop watching.
Neil Patrick Harris camps it up as the villainous Count Olaf but unlike Jim Carrey in the 2004 film adaptation, he has the potential to be genuinely frightening. Yes, he delivers outlandish monologues and puts on ridiculous voices and even, on occasion, a pair of high heels. But the series doesn’t look away from his more malevolent moments, including a certain, er, fondness for 14-year-old Violet Baudelaire.
The three orphans are cast so well, I could almost be sure that they had wandered straight off the page, and the courageous, clever Violet is still as much of a hero to me as she was when I was a child (I once invented a machine that allowed me to switch off my bedroom light without having to leave my bed).
As with the books, the biggest villain of the piece isn’t really Count Olaf at all but an indifferent adult world, more intent on patronising and palming off the three children than looking after them. Like Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket has little patience or warmth for adults who underestimate children and the hapless adults are portrayed in searing detail by a star-studded supporting cast, including Joan Cusack and the sensational Alfre Woodard.
The show is unashamedly affectionate towards its source material, scattering Easter eggs galore for those who have read the books (where, oh where is Count Olaf’s sugar bowl?) and I can see that this might put some people off. But as someone who grew up with these books, I felt as though Lemony Snicket was reaching through the screen and winking right at me (I didn’t realise this was a sad occasion). I was drawn into the mystery, listening for familiar codewords, feeling every bit a part of the secretive volunteer organisation skirting the edges of the story.
“The deadpan, despairing voice of Lemony Snicket punctuated my teen years, bringing tragic new tales of the Baudelaire orphans that I could never put down, even as he warned me off.”
Lemony Snicket’s books reserve a special fondness for children who read, showing Violet, Klaus and Sunny escaping danger thanks to their fierce intelligence. The Netflix adaptation sweetly upholds this tradition for its adult viewers in an interesting way. I would wager that the better read one is, the more jokes one finds within its script. They’ve even managed to squeeze in a sex joke that depends entirely on knowing the macabre French translation for orgasm, which, naturally, I do.
Snicket’s books encouraged children to read and research, introducing them to new words, works of literature, great artworks. The litany of references and hidden jokes in the TV series rewards those who continued to read into adulthood.
The series beautifully sets up the overarching mystery of the Baudelaire lives and even at the end, leaves enough questions unanswered to plant a serious itch. What happened to Beatrice? Who is setting all of these fires? What did Fiona mean earlier about the sugar bowl?
I hope that this adaptation captures the imagination of a whole new generation of kids who, if they had any sense, would look away and paint a nice picture instead.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is available on Netflix now.
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Fiona Longmuir is a professional storyteller, reluctant adult and aspiring funny girl. When not getting naked in tube stations and binge-watching inappropriate TV shows, she can be found scribbling at the Escapologist's Daughter.