**Spoiler Alert: I’ve done my best not to reveal much plot detail, but I have to ask — Does it really count as spoilers when the series is already close to 20 years old?**
Movie and TV adaptations of my favourite books are always a bit of a risk. On the one hand, it is interesting to see favourite characters and stories come to life in a new way. On the other hand, it can be very frustrating when the version on screen doesn’t match the way you imagined the story would look. Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was one that I was highly anticipating, and it was actually the main reason I wanted Netflix in the first place. The book series has always been one of my favourite, and I also really enjoyed the movie starring Jim Carrey. I was first introduced to these books alongside Harry Potter at a “book chat” when I was in elementary school. Our former school librarian visited and read us the first few pages of both of these books, and I was immediately intrigued by both. I was a little apprehensive about the series when I started, but by the end of the first episode, I was hooked!
For those who don’t know, A Series of Unfortunate Events is an amazing middle grade series about three orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire whose parents are killed in a mysterious fire. In each book, the children are brought to live with various eccentric guardians, the first of which is the evil Count Olaf who is after their enormous fortune. In each subsequent book, the children attempt to live safely with their new guardians while fending off Count Olaf’s plots to take them.
One of the first things that struck me about the Netflix series was how closely it stuck, for the most part, to the plots of the books. This was especially true for the the first two pairs of episodes: The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room. Of course, given the new medium, some of the elements would naturally have to be changed. The primary change was that Lemony Snicket existed in this version as a visible character, rather than just a voice-over, who occasionally shows up on screen, unseen by the other characters, to explain what is happening or offer advice. It was quite a big change to be able to actually see Lemony Snicket, since an ongoing device in the books and even in the previous film version is that his face is never shown.
The series also planted some very strong hints for future developments in the story, most of which are not addressed in the book series until at least the seventh book. The episodes introduced Jacquelyn, a brand new character who does not exist in the books, and delved a bit further into some of the backstory behind the Baudelaire family. At first, I was put off by these changes because they did not seem necessary to advance the plot in the earliest episodes, but by the end of the series, I actually liked that it added an additional layer to the story.
This was the area where I was most nervous when the cast list for the series was announced, especially with Patrick Warburton cast as Lemony Snicket. I’ll admit I may be biased since my most recent experiences with his roles were Kronk (The Emperor’s New Groove) and Jeff on Rules of Engagement, neither of which gave me much reason to see him as the enigmatic Lemony Snicket. Each episode, it takes me a few minutes to readjust my expectations of him, but each time, he wins me over. Patrick Warburton has a very distinctive voice, so it can be hard to break associations with other characters (ie. Kronk, one of my favourite Disney characters!), but once you move past that hurdle, he plays the role well.
Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf was another casting choice that I was not very sure of. Although I’ve always heard that he is a talented actor, I’ve never actually seen anything (barring a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother) that he was in. Count Olaf is a character that needs a perfect balance between sinister and theatrical, and I thought Jim Carrey portrayed him very well in the movie version. Neil Patrick Harris’ portrayal is quite different, and also took some time to win me over. He was excellent with the comedic elements of the role.
Most importantly however was the casting of the children. I absolutely loved Emily Browning as Violet and Liam Aiken as Klaus in the film version. The casting of the infant Sunny at this point is not such a concern given her extremely limited role in the early stories. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes as Violet and Klaus respectively bring a lot to their roles for such young actors, neither of whom have had such large roles before. Both bring the characters to life in a way that suits the stories well, and it is easy to see the bond between the siblings. They completely capture the children’s intelligence, and especially their devotion to their family.
Aside from the main characters, this show also depends heavily on a cast of side characters. Joan Cusack was brilliant as Justice Strauss, easily the best casting choice of all the additional characters. K. Todd Freeman is also great as the completely ineffectual Mr. Poe, and Catherine O’Hara as the creepy Dr. Orwell. Other casting choices were a bit more hit or miss. Alfre Woodard has a tough act to follow, after Meryl Streep’s brilliant portrayal of the fearful Aunt Josephine in the movie version. I actually was not very impressed with any of the guardians, except possibly Aasif Mandvi as the eccentric Montgomery Montgomery, although his accent seemed to come and go. Even less impressive was Count Olaf’s acting troupe, none of whom particularly stood out.
This series was directed by Barry Sonenfeld, the director behind two of my favourite movies of all time — The Addams Family and The Addams Family Values. To me, this series actually had a similar feel to those films, with a blend between humour and a dark, almost Victorian style. Actually, Count Olaf’s house reminds me quite a bit of the Addams family’s mansion from the outside. I thought the series did an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of the books. However, I was less impressed by the use of CGI for Sunny. I understand that it is difficult to film an infant performing some of the actions Sunny needs to do, but the CGI tended to break how realistic the rest of the setting seemed.
The costume designs were also very well-done, especially Count Olaf’s sometimes ridiculous disguises. I really liked the decision to often put the children in more colourful outfits among the darker backgrounds. I also really enjoyed the brilliant set designs, from Count Olaf’s creepy home to the elaborate libraries to the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Visually, this series captured my attention right from the start and held it up until the end.
Overall Impressions (10 point scale)
Plot – 9
Casting – 9
Setting/Visuals – 10
Overall – 9.5/10