As the late and lamented Graham Taylor might have said, did I not like the movie A Series Of Unfortunate Events? Many more were with me there, largely, one supposes, because we hate the hamminess of Jim Carrey. In fairness many other stars with absolutely no excuse whatsoever crammed into the cast took it upon themselves to overact to the detriment of the project, the greatest sinner being none other than Meryl Streep. Not surprisingly, no sequels were ever made.
How wonderful therefore to find a new TV adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events that stays pretty close to book 1 in the original series, and I’m quite sure will be followed by further series – trust me, there’s plenty of material to be adapted. My daughter in particular was hooked on all 13 books, consumed them avidly and then moved on to the next thing, but we all retain a certain fondness for the Lemony Snickett oeuvre, actually a nom de plume for a chap called Daniel Handler.
As such, the TV series and the film cover much the same ground, albeit told in slightly different ways. Furthermore, the look and feel of the TV series is not so very different from the film, if marginally simplified (eg. Aunt Josephine Anwhistle’s camera shutter window, a nod to the recurring artificial eye motif, over Lake Lachrymose becomes a straightforward patio window, tilted to reflect the wonky nature of the house.) That is to say, things are shabby, vaguely distasteful, but with sets and CGIs that are beautifully constructed.
Worthy of note is that Snickett himself has a much greater role than in the film, where he is seen only from unhelpful angles and therefore disguised from looking like Jude Law. Snickett appears in the TV adaptation very openly and in the shape of Patrick Warburton. This is a good move, since Warburton imbues the character of narrator with delicious deadpan irony, while explaining words and concepts to the audience of children and adults alike and mourning his dear departed Beatrice Beaudelaire. Straight-faced, he appears on every set to provide downbeat context and to warn of the inherently tragic fate of the Beaudelaire orphans, contrary to the richly entertaining reality.
Of children there are three, orphaned when their parents’ mansion is burned to the ground, which mystery is not resolved in series 1. The three, Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny Baudelaire (as played by Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith), are endlessly long-suffering but resourceful perform with ingenuity and perspicacity in equal measure; no child is innocence to be found here.
Unlike their narrator, they remain resourceful and relentlessly upbeat. Together, using their combined skills they engineer successful solutions to every predicament in which they are placed by the evil Count Olaf, whose sole purpose is to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. Olaf is inadvertently helped in his fiendish trickery by the well-meaning but ineffectual and gullible and eternally cough-ridden custodian of the family wealth, banker Arthur Poe, here played by K Todd Freeman, a contrast to Timothy Spall‘s Poe in the film in several degrees, including subservience to a masterful wife.
So what of the new Count Olaf? Compared to Carrey, Neil Patrick Harris is marginally understated, but not so you would notice. The emphasis is firmly on controlled slapstick, such that the Count’s antics barely look beyond cartoon format, none more so than in the final two episodes where he dons female clothing and makeup to play the optician’s receptionist in drag. For all that, there is more subtlety and a touch more cerebral sophistication to Harris’s Count that give him dimensions of which Carrey could only dream.
The effect is such that Olaf executes his plots with the help of a dim and hare-brained gang not only through disguises that fool only Mr Poe and the Baudelaire’s assorted relatives, but with just a hint of menace. He is much the more credible for having his comically sinister act marginally toned down just a notch, but dogged in his determination, ruthless and apparently fuelled by past sleights by the Baudelaire family. This is much the more rounded portrayal, a richly satisfying one too.
For me, the highlight of the film version was herpetologist guardian Dr Montgomery Montgomery (AKA Uncle Monty), as played by the irrepressible and irreversibly Scottish comic Billy Connolly. In the person of Aasif Mandvi he is every bit as eccentric and lovable, with a hint of Indian replacing the native Scottishness of Mr Connolly.
In fact, given the lovely Alfre Woodard‘s politely terrified grammar nazi Aunt Josephine and the aforementioned Mr Poe, you might call TV’s ASOUE politically correct or at least ethnically balanced. I don’t mean this critically, since each actor is well-chosen and delivers their role with verve, but it seems rather a self-conscious piece of casting. By these standards, it’s almost surprising the producers failed to cast a hispanic “Sir” (a rare sighting of Don Johnson.)
The strangest and most other-worldly bits of this series concern Jacqueline (Sara Canning), a minor character in the book given free reign to act as a kind of unofficial guardian angel to the Baudelaires with help from other distant relatives, but I’ll let you discover this for yourselves.
Of course, this is not simply a triumph of acting but of making the visuals an acceptable translation of the beloved books to avid readers, something even decent films fail at with monotonous regularity, largely because any film is not how you visualised it and because many of the details vanish as the plot is straightened out into a linear plot. Take the Harry Potter series, which did not disappoint many, and thanks to the involvement of the author stayed true to the plot of the original – but still failed the test of many a reader, and would probably have required 10 hour films to do it literally. You can’t win, it seems.
Or can you? The Snickett books have the advantage of taking place in neat chunks and with quite televisual style, complete with narration, make the process of adapting the books comparatively easy. The result should be happy viewers and further series, but I’ll hang fire until we know for certain. This I can say with certainty: if people don’t like it now, they most assuredly never will.