Saturday, February 5, 2022

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Note: This review contains spoilers for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Running alongside the original run of the Harry Potter book series was a series of 13 books written by Lemony Snicket (pseudonym for Daniel Handler) known as A Series of Unfortunate Events, which chronicles the story of the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny as they try to escape the evil Count Olaf, who is chasing after their family fortune. As a child, I grew up reading these books and I remember enjoying them, so I was excited when a film adaptation based on the first three books in the series (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window), dubbed Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, was announced for a 2004 release. I liked the movie when it came out in spite of some noticeable changes to the story, though in the years since I have not seen it again that much, and I always thought it was a shame that it never got a sequel, which I discovered during research was due to corporate shakeups on Paramount’s end at the time. Well over a decade later, after deciding to revisit the movie, I found that the movie holds up pretty well and some of it hit me a lot harder as an adult than it did back when I first watched it.

The story centers on the three Baudelaire children: Violet (Emily Browning), who liked to invent; Klaus (Liam Aiken), who liked to read; and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), who liked to bite. One day, the Baudelaire mansion is destroyed in a fire, taking their parents with it. While the children search the wreckage, Klaus finds a mysterious spyglass in their father’s drawer, wondering what it means. Now orphans, the children are taken to their nearest living relative (by distance), the untrustworthy Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).

The Baudelaire children go through a series of unfortunate events.
From left: Klaus (Liam Aiken), Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman),
Violet (Emily Browning)

It’s been some time since I read the books, though from memory the film is a largely faithful adaptation of the first three installments, with The Reptile Room noticeably getting the least amount of screen time. That said, some changes were made to make those books work better as a film, and I thought they worked well for the medium. One of the more noticeable changes, which works fine cinematically, is the splitting up of The Bad Beginning such that the wedding sequence takes place after the events of The Wide Window, as well as altering the defeat of Count Olaf such that it involves the device he used to burn the Baudelaire mansion rather than a technicality from Violet signing the certificate with her non-dominant hand. Another noticeable change is the introduction of the VFD subplot much earlier than in the books, which arguably helps better tie the events of the first three books together and more easily lends itself to teasing a sequel that ultimately never came.

This also leads to some original material not seen in the books, including the Baudelaire children making one last stop at their burnt-down mansion before heading off to the events of The Miserable Mill. This scene hit me a lot harder emotionally as an adult than it did as a kid and I wasn’t sure why at first. Thinking about it again, it was a perfect way to end the events of the movie on a high note, by inserting a moment of optimism in an otherwise very cynical world.

If there’s one thing that deserves credit, it’s the phenomenal set design that really brings Brett Helquist’s illustrations to life and creates a world that’s very true to the books. Other details such as vehicle design and the appearance of The Littlest Elf from the books play into this as well, in addition to other visual effects like The Incredibly Deadly Viper. This is not mentioning the stellar end credits sequence, which uses cutout (or cutout-like) animation in a way that makes it an interesting watch even divorced from the context of the movie itself. The costume designs and makeup deserve similar praise, to the point where Jim Carrey physically resembles Count Olaf as in the book illustrations, complimenting his performance that perfectly captures Olaf’s personality without taking over any scene he’s in.

Jim Carrey looks and acts exactly like Count Olaf.

In addition to Jim Carrey, the movie has some really good casting choices in general, among them the actors for the Baudelaire children. One that stands out is Jude Law, who convincingly plays the part of Lemony Snicket in a clever framing device that emulates the narrative style of the books. Two others include Billy Connolly in the role of the Baudelaires’ second guardian Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, who is their nicest guardian in the movie and has a fascination with reptiles; and Meryl Streep as their third guardian Aunt Josephine, who is overly paranoid and obsessed with grammar.

Around the time of the movie’s release, a promotional campaign was held in which specially-marked packs of Lunchables contained additional bits of story and a mini-newspaper based on the one found in the books, for a total of four. While I am not one to normally eat Lunchables, this was a promotion that, as a fan of the books, I did not want to miss out on, managing to obtain all four packages and extras. Also at the time of the film’s release, the books themselves had reached the 11th installment, The Grim Grotto, finishing with the 13th and final book, The End, two years later. Since then, among other companion novels, a four-book prequel series titled All The Wrong Questions was released between 2012 and 2015, detailing the life of a young Lemony Snicket before his writings on the Baudelaires.

While a proper sequel to the film never got made, the idea of adapting the books to film would eventually be revisited as a Netflix original series from 2017-2019 under the name A Series of Unfortunate Events, notably featuring its own deviations from the source material and starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. While I do not currently have a Netflix subscription as of this writing, I did actually watch an episode of the series through a WonderCon 2018 panel for the series (while waiting for a different panel right after), specifically S2E3 “The Ersatz Elevator: Part 1”, with Nathan Fillion, who plays the character Jaques Snicket in the series, appearing in person to present the screening. Since I only watched the one episode, I’m not sure if I got enough of an impression of Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf in comparison to Jim Carrey’s take, though now that the series has concluded and managed to adapt all 13 books in the series, it is something I would consider revisiting down the line if I ever get the chance.

Though it takes liberties from the source material, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events still holds up as a solid movie in its own right that can be enjoyed by both fans and non-fans of the source material. For those who are curious, while you can still find a DVD of the movie for cheap, it is also available on streaming platforms, among them Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access).

No comments:

Post a Comment