Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: a whimsical, wild and whacky adventure

The latest adaptation of Handler’s popular stories by Netflix provides a visual feast, whilst still remaining true to the books.

The series’ catchy theme song urges its viewers ‘look away, look away’, and the story’s writer Lemony Snicket (authored in reality by Daniel Handler, played by Patrick Warburton) regularly intervenes to warn the show will ruin your day.  But to miss this wonderfully dark and gothic, yet high-camp escapade would be an unfortunate event itself.

It’s not the first time the stories have been translated to screen –a feature film was released over a decade ago, to a critical audience, after Handler’s own script was re-written suddenly under the direction of the studio.  Netflix clearly did not want to make the same mistake, and “asked [Handler] very nicely” who then authored the scripts and co-produced the series.  The 8-epsiode roster means the intricacies of the story have time to unfold.

The plot follows the lives of the ill-fated Baudelaires – three intelligent and inventive youngsters, recently orphaned, and due to inherit a fortune when they come-of-age.  They’re left in the guardianship of evil, failing actor, Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) bobbing between other mad-cap grown-ups who have less sense of responsibility than the children.  Sorrow, bereavement and let-downs are a recurring theme in the story.

What stands out for the series is, without doubt, the visuals.  Every scene is fabulous: a dash of Wes Anderson whilst also Burtonesque. Barry Sonnenfeld (Director) and Bo Welch (production designer) bring together perfect experiences of The Addams Family and Pushing Daisies (Sonnenfeld) with the colourful yet uniform artistic style of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (Welch).  A musical score by Danny Elfman might have been the icing on the cake – but instead it is provided by James Newton Howard, perhaps a rising star in fantasy film music (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Mockingjay) following two decades-worth of scores for more the more drab of films (Confessions of a Shopaholic).

Central to the books are Snicket’s crafty wordsmithing – difficult to interpret to television without becoming too heavy if applied to each character.  Introducing the narrator as the writer himself – Lemony Snickett – allows the adaptation to maintain the unique and witty storyline. Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton, introduces, wraps up and often interrupts goings on using his famous tone, most notable for animation voiceovers (Bee Movie, Hoodwinked).  A dry performance allows the narrative to shine through.

Finally, the child actors.  Many Netflix Originals of late centre around children, and have casted well. Some scenes come across a little stilted but this is of of detriment to the series.  The personalities of the children are peculiarly grown-up, any brief stiffness in acting merely reflects the resilience of their characters.

The final episode (rounding off book 4 of 13) depicts the children leaving for boarding school, but this looks nothing like Hogwarts.  We’re left hanging for a second series: what is the spyglass? What does Count Olaf’s tattoo mean? Will the Baudelaires come together with the Quagmires?

Netflix ratings may be unknown to us (it’s their policy) but I think it is fair to say that their choice of cast, directorship and writers will make this another one of their hit series for both young and old audiences.