For those who remember back when Harry Potter nearly had a contender as the most popular children’s literature, you would know that the Series of Unfortunate Events books written by Daniel Handler (aka, Lemony Snicket) were extremely popular, and came close to claiming the number one in book sales for several years, and even managed to get a theatrical movie made about them in 2004, which was made in the hopes from Paramount to create a genuine competitor to the Harry Potter films, but due to the reluctance of lead actor Jim Carey to come back for the sequels, the film stayed as a single one-off.
Now after many years, Netflix have a new feather in their 2017 cap of original shows with an adaptation of the books, with a first series having been released last Friday on the 13th (get it?)
This first series adapts the first 4 books in the series, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window and The Miserable Mill
With a long time since major public interest in the books, and with a previous adaptation already looming over it, does this series deliver on the twists, turns, grim humour and gothic imagery of the franchise?
First thing to say is that the show looks amazing, with it being made by the director of the Men in Black films, Barry Sonnenfeld, and his regular cinematographer and frequent Tim Burton collaborator, Bo Welch, they managed to make a show that defiantly stands out from the crowd. Much like the movie, it uses a mix of created sets with green-screen backdrops, but, with the greater amounts of CGI technology that we have, it allows it to look less like a theatre play a more like something that seems as if it exists in it’s own world, and while the heavy use of CGI and the obviousness of the fake sets can be a bit distracting, it does fit for this story, since it’s very surreal and told in a very tonuge-and-cheek fashion, and you can tell that Bo tried his hardest to not make it resemble the original move too much, though some of the sets do look a little recycled, but, when you get the Miserable Mill episodes, that’s when he really gets into his own style and look, so in terms of design, the show does do a great job.
However, while it’s great to have something nice to look at, we also need a good story, and gipping characters to make us want to keep looking at this show, which is defiantly going to be something that will be dependent on whether on not the books can be translated to screen effectively.
This is a story that is very reminiscent of children’s books from the early 2000’s, the characters are children and are made the focus above all else, and are portrayed as being very clever and skilled, more so that the adults in the world most of the time, which makes it a great view for kids, but that could be an issue, but I’ll get into that later, however, most of the time their given assigned personality traits and gimmicks rather than three-dimensional personalities, which does make them difficult characters to adapt into a motion-picture format.
The individual stories of each book also tend to follow a formula, this one being that the Beaudelaire orphans are passed on from one guardian to another, and each one is either a terrible and cruel person who ends up escaping to further their dastardly schemes or meets a sticky end, or, is someone who seems very eccentric and poorly fit to take care of three children, and also tends to meet a sticky end, which makes it perfect for an on-going TV series.
Books from this era are also very keen to build a distinct world and mythos, Harry Potter and the Wizarding World, Tracey Beaker and the Dumping Ground, The Demon Headmaster’s hypnotic eyes, Goosebumps’ typography and so on; these sorts of things were made so that the book, and any sorts of adaptations of the books, would be instantly recognisable, and give it a distinct identity, and Series of Unfortunate Events, while having some elements like the spyglass and the eye symbol, doesn’t have that much of a distinctive world and identity, and it’s trademarked elements came more from the writing style than from the visual style, and while the visual style is defiantly unique and fascinating, if you showed a person with only a minor knowledge of the franchise a clip of this without knowing what it is, they may not be able to identify it straight away, which could make it hard to stand out in promotional material and amongst the crowd on Netflix.
One thing that does distract me is that they can’t seem to decide what time the story is set, they seem to flip-flop from it being more around the early twentieth-century like in the books with the use of trams, gothic architecture, out-dated technology and the use of the word ‘nickelodeon’ to refer to a movie theatre; and modern times with things like sneakers, headphones and very modern-looking telephones. It’s a minor nitpick, maybe, but it does seem as if they were torn from making it reminiscent of the books to appease the fans, and more like modern times to appeal to modern audiences, and it does make it a bit confusing in how some places look like a modern town, and others look like a town circa 1915.
However, with all of that said, the biggest question that needs to be asked is ‘is it an enjoyable show to watch?’, and to be honest, it’s really hard to say for certain if people would enjoy it or not, since it really come down to personal preference
In terms of performances, it’s pretty solid all across the board, Patrick Warburton is very good as Lemony Snicket, who plays him very differently to Jude Law, who had a very hypnotic and soothing voice as the narrator, and was also never seen fully on camera, and was very much kept out of the action, this time, he’s portrayed as a ghostly figure observing everything as it happens and relying the plot details to us as the audience, and is played in a very dead-pan, slightly monotone way, but it works in the context of this story, and he’s very entertaining to watch because of his dry delivery and sarcastic commentary. New new actors for the kids are very good, seeming much more like real children this time (with some licence to be granted, given how abnormally intelligent and skilled that can be at times), and work very well as protagonists.
K. Todd Freeman is very entertaining as the absent-minded banker Mr. Poe, though I think I prefer Timothy Spall, but that’s more of a personal preference really, the TV version is given a lot more to do and is much more fleshed out than him, and Joan Cusack is great as Justice Strauss who is also given more time and attention here too, and all of the supporting cast do a great job as their various caricature-like characters, partially a surprise cameo by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders (who are probably using this show to help pay the bills until they star in The Lego Batman Movie later this year), and Cathrine O’Hara from Home Alone and they’re all great as always. To be quite honest, the only performance I have a slight problem with is Neil Patrick Harris’.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love NPH, he’s one of my favourite actors, and his charisma is just completely limitless and that makes him a joy in everything he stars in, but, that also gives him the biggest problem when it comes to acting, it’s hard to not notice that it’s him in the role. In the original movie, Jim Carey played the villainous thespian, Count Olaf, in a way that just seemed as if he was playing several different sketch characters from Saturday Night Live or In Living Colour, much like many of the roles he’s played, and it feels like he’s not looking to play a character, he’s looking to act wild and be more of a funny voice and face, and while there are exceptions to that with him, it did make his version of Count Olaf, and Olaf’s various alter egos, seem more like a version of Jim Carey than the actual character, and sadly, Neil Patrick Harris suffers from the same problem.
He is less over-the-top and cartoony as Carey, but much like Carey, Neil Patrick Harris is someone who you can tell works hard on every role he’s given, but most of time you just see him playing a role, not the character he’s supposed to be, which does make it a bit of a disappointment, I can imagine, for fans of the books, who probably wanted the more darker and serious Count Olaf from those stories, but instead it’s just more of a chance to have a bunch of funny characters and comedy set-pieces for the show done by a very popular comedian, in fact, he’s probably even more of a joke in this one than he was in the last movie, and it’s just tragic when I watch this and I sometimes say to myself mistakingly ‘man, this play by Barney is really elaborate and grim, what ever happened to ‘The Weekend and Barney’s?’.
But, as Neil Patrick Harris always is, he does do very enjoyable and magnetic performance, and his delivery really makes you love to hate this guy, and his portrayal as Count Olaf’s various disguises are hilarious, and very much like the kind of ‘plays’ he would do as Barney in How I Met Your Mother. So while his lack of transforming abilities as an actor does hold him back a bit, he is still great to watch.
Besides the performances, the story is very gripping, watchers of the first movie may remember clues and hints to a bigger plot and mystery buried underneath the tragic accidents and murder attempts, well, in the show, they defiantly draw more attention to it, and while it still raises more questions that it answers (though we are only a third of the way through the books ATM), it’s good to see better plotting, pacing and set-up for the bigger reveals in this version of the story, and the individual episodes do make for some great stories, full of suspense and mystery that can be wrapped up in two episodes that keep the tensions high and exciting, and fans will be glad to hear that is tries (for the most part) to be very faithful to book and many of it’s tiny details, with Mr. Poe’s ongoing cough, the ‘left hand’ trick and the aforementioned deeper mystery, and at only 8 episodes currently, it’s a great view for a Netflix-binging lazy Sunday.
I think my only major problem is that is tough to think who the main audience for this show is, the book was very dark, particularly for a kid’s book, but, it seemed as if it was able to get away with some grisly details because it was a written-medium, not visual, so it was left more to the reader’s interpretation on how truly dark the dark scenes could get, and, it was made to be very dark humour a lot of the time which took the sting out of the rough edges a lot of the time, but, in a live action adaption, you have to be very careful with how you portray these scenes. You either have to go full-on cold-hearted like The Animals of Farthing Wood, which would make it very hard to sell to kids, almost impossible in some countries, or, make it more cartoony and child-accessible like Horrible Histories, and this show does get pretty intense a lot of the time, with characters dying in horrible ways, references to sex, drugs and alcohol, and threatening the lives of children and a baby in some pretty vile ways, it might be a bit of a hard watch of some younger children, but, the show does still have restraint to make sure that it is suitable for kids, so it might be hard for some adults to get into it as well. I’m sure that the show will appeal to many people, as the books did, but, it is something that, as a person who tries to see the potnetial financial possibility and accesibility of any film or TV series, it’s something that just caught my attention.
On the whole, this is a show that I can only say that it’ll really be up to your personal presences and own perspective on whether or not you like it, but, I think it’s a strong show, and I really enjoyed it, it’s defiantly something that I’ll plan to return to for a few re-watches and for the following series when they come out.
Try and check it out for yourself and see what you can make out of it, hopefully you can enjoy it as much as I did, or, you’ll heed the wringing of the theme song and ‘look away’.