They say all good things take time. Perhaps 13 years was what A Series of Unfortunate Events needed so the right actors could reach the perfect age. At least that’s how I feel about Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes. And truth be told, they had a big responsibility resting on their shoulders. Not just anyone can properly bring my favorite characters to life. As you can tell, I have so many feelings about this show. So, I’ve decided to engage in a book by book review of the first season. We’ll begin at the start, obviously, with episodes one and two, corresponding to The Bad Beginning.
[Spoiler-infested waters. Swim at your own risk.]
The Bad Beginning I-II
The Bad Beginning is one of my favorite books in the series. It has the thrilling privilege and the heavy responsibility to introduce the morbidly stylized universe of Lemony Snicket. The book series accomplishes this feat through a sarcastic and cynical narration, accompanied by a heavy dose of dark humor. But how do you translate macabre characters like Count Olaf into an audiovisual platform?
As it stands, the conception of the villain was certainly the biggest challenge director Barry Sonnenfeld had to face. For one, Olaf is an exceedingly complex character. In the books he’s not only just menacing, but cunning and is supposed to come across as a vile person who is also worthy of admiration. In other words, Olaf is not supposed to be a caricature, but a full-fledged criminal mastermind with a damaged moral compass of his own.
When Neil Patrick Harris was casted to play the role, I felt a simultaneous jolt of joy and fear. While I love NPH and believe in his ability to play eccentric characters like Barney Stinson, I was afraid the eccentricity would be too close to home and the essence of Count Olaf would be lost under the aura of Neil Patrick Harris himself. This did happen, especially with in-the-nose allusions to Barney Stinson’s rhetoric and the casting of Cobie Smulders as “the mother.”
Would people unfamiliar with How I Met Your Mother have a problem with this? Probably not. But the fact remained. It didn’t matter how many times NPH nailed his lines or how many times the script was faithful to the books, I was too aware of the fact that I was watching Neil Patrick Harris and not my favorite villain Count Olaf. However, as we depart from the first two episodes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Stinson effect begins to fade. But more on that later.
The second jump Sonnenfeld needed to land successfully was the implementation of Lemony Snicket’s voice. Lemony is the soul of the Unfortunate Events books. His narration is what gives the kids agency, what exposes the dark heart of Count Olaf, and what drives home Mr. Poe’s stupidity. Even more importantly, Lemony Snicket is responsible for making a generation of children feel like, despite their age, they also had a voice and a brain. So how do you adapt this voice for an older viewership that is split between wanting both the reassuring voice of their youth and a more mature form of entertainment?
Thankfully, this had a simple solution. It involved casting Patrick Warburton, who I hear almost wasn’t able to play the part. I know that many are upset about Lemony’s mysteriousness being taken away, but to be fair, there was never going to be any mystery for fans of the books. We already know Lemony’s backstory, and virgin viewers don’t know much about him with what little the show has provided. Also, Warburton’s face is very nice to look at, so can we really complain that Lemony’s face was revealed?
It’s also fair to keep in mind that Lemony Snicket’s face was hidden in the books to protect the distance between Daniel Handler the author and Lemony Snicket the narrator and character. That simply isn’t a factor in the show. Also try imagining a show in which the narration we are so fond off keeps popping up as an off-screen voice. Handler would have had to cut a lot of it from the script to keep the pace of the show going. Another benefit to having Snicket on the screen is that it maintains the most sacred aspect of the books: the bond between him and the reader.
The Baudelaire Orphans
When I watched the Series of Unfortunate Events movie, there was only one thing that disappointed me more than the altered plot. I simply couldn’t wrap my head around how old Violet and Klaus were and how unexpectedly goth they were dressed. The eldest Baudelaire orphans are supposed to be 14 and 12, old enough to survive the perils they face and young enough to relate to a pre-pubescent audience. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes remedy this not only through their appearance, but through their careful and accurate portrayal of the orphans.
Sunny was fine in the movie since, after all, a baby is a baby after all. But Presley Smith is a true gem. Her facial expressions (which is really all a baby actress can do) are spot on. The dialogue she was given is short yet poignant and serves its purpose tremendously well. The baby has more attitude than many grownups in the real word, a move which saves Sunny from falling prey to her innability to speak.
Most importantly, the Baudelaire orphans have been properly adapted to our times and to the medium. While Klaus was always protective of his sister, he is more vocal in the show. Handler protects the children’s core values, flaws, and virtues and builds upon them to create a more dynamic Baudelaire trio. In the books, Handler could rely on the plot to move the children from place to place, but in the show the actors need something more to do while on screen. To put it in perspective, I cannot, for the life of me, remember the voices of the Baudelaire orphans in the movie.
Jacquelyn, the Parents, and Other Added Features
My favorite thing about the show is that Daniel Handler has developed new backstories to enhance the books. This means that even people who have read the books several times in the past years can still feel in the dark about certain things. We’re not just watching a dramatization of our favorite books: we are getting new information. Of course, none of this would have meant anything had the additions not come from Handler himself. This is what makes the character of Jacquelyn both a delight and a valid canonical figure.
The show also doesn’t shy away from playing games with those who know the story best. Anyone who has read the books know that, speculations of Beatrice’s survival aside, Bertrand Baudelaire is definitely dead. So, what do you mean Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett are the parents? But alas, they’re the Quagmire parents. So many fans watched the first seven episodes in complete disbelief, wondering what in the world was happening with the Baudelaire family. Now this trick establishes a frame of suspicion for the book fans. This move is especially important considering that new fans of the show will be picking up the series as they wait for season two.
Finally, we have Mr. Poe and Olaf’s henchmen. The show made fierce and formidable strides when it comes to inclusion, both backstage and on stage. Writers like Tatiana Suarez-Pico and actors like Swazi Usman Ally make this show astounding. They even kept the non-binary character, who is portrayed by Matty Cardarople. Making Mr. Poe and his family black also adds a new dimension to the Baudelaire tale, as we have the particular flair of Mrs. Poe, for instance, saucing up scenes from time to time. The best part? It’s all canon.
Concluding Thoughts on The Bad Beginning
The show does have a bumpy start, but it is to be expected. We had been waiting for this to come to life for so long that our expectations had become unattainable fantasies. We also needed time to get our brains out of the books and into this new space. Time for Neil Patrick Harris’ performance to win over a perfect Jim Carrey. The easiest aspects to digest from these opening episodes were the Baudelaire orphans and the iconic and useless Justice Strauss. Still, I can say with full confidence that overall the show was not off to a bad beginning. In fact, I was ready to jump into The Reptile Room by the time the credits rolled. And speaking of credits, the opening song is still stuck in my head a week later. And no, Netflix, I won’t look away.
Stay tuned for the rest. Links will be available here once the other three parts go live.