Better Than The Book? A Series of Unfortunate Events

Netflix has tapped into the way the world is feeling about 2017, releasing a television adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s beloved A Series of Unfortunate Events this month.

LPL’s resident Snicket fans Sarah and Fisher sat down to sort out their feelings about it— the good, the bad, and the extra unfortunate.

Fisher: When did you first start reading A Series of Unfortunate Events?  I’m also curious to learn more about what attracted you to the book series. 

Sarah: It was 2001. I took a Children’s Lit class at KU and we were lucky enough to speak with Lemony Snicket – AKA Daniel Handler – via speakerphone. Please remember, this was way before Skype! I wish I could go back and listen to that conversation again or at least find my notes from that time.  We read The Bad Beginning and I was immediately hooked. It was unlike any children’s book I had read before- so dark and creepy. Yet, hilarious!

Fisher: I agree!  I first read the books in Middle School around the time that The Wide Window came out.  This may sound ultra nerdy, but my friends and I had our own VFD club where we would write each other notes in Sebald Code and scan the local papers for signs of mysterious fires.  I’ve always had a darker sense of humor and liked that the series didn’t downplay the fact that sometimes awful things happen to the best of people.   

Sarah: I have always loved the macabre too. But these books were different. Darker. I mean, The Boxcar Children were orphans, but they were at least having fun adventures. There seems to be a lot of orphans in children’s literature. I guess it opens up the stories and lets kids be free to do anything imaginable.

Fisher: What were your initial impressions after finishing the show?  Did it make you happy as a book reader?

Sarah: Overall, yes. There were some changes made that, at first, I was unsure I would like, but I accepted as the episodes played out. Without getting into spoilers, there were characters who had more presence in the show than in the books. But their addition made sense, so I’m OK with it now. I’m sure Lemony Snicket will be happy to know I’m not mad about it.

Fisher: What’s interesting is that Lemony Snicket wrote most of the scripts for the show, so you know it’s canon.  Part of what made the Netflix series so much fun was that it got rid of the tedium of the early books by breaking up the repetitive plot points with new storylines.  I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists added to the story. 

Sarah: Absolutely! If I have any issue with the books (and I barely do) it’s that reading them in succession, out-loud, to my daughter, can get a little redundant – different day, different disguise. The pace and the changes in the Netflix series were refreshing. (And, no worries, there is an abundance of amazing disguises). There are also plenty of easter eggs in the show that you wouldn’t have picked up if you hadn’t read the books.

Fisher: Like Very Fresh Dill or Count Olaf mentioning the disappearance of his sugar bowl.  I like that it gives something new for fans who have read this series for the millionth time to watch instead of a scene-for-scene adaptation, which would have been a total snoozefest. 

Sarah:  Although, the books are darker, which I prefer.  There were times when I thought Neil Patrick Harris should have played Olaf a little more diabolically and a little less dumb. Don’t get me wrong, Olaf is dumb, but he’s more eviI than anything. The combination is flipped in the Netflix series.

Fisher: So true.  Like the later Harry Potter films, I think they will crank up the darkness as they move into the last few books while still retaining Snicket’s impeccable witticisms. 

Sarah: Did you like how it looked stylistically? What about some of the modern day references (like when Olaf says he bought his hour glass on Amazon)?

Fisher: I feel that those elements gave it a whimsical vibe – a la Pushing Daisies, which was the perfect route for them to take.  You can feel director Barry Sonnenfeld’s influence on the production design and cinematography.  I think they purposely went with an overly CGI, saturated environment, which effectively translates many of the book’s motifs and general style to the screen.               

Sarah: Well, they certainly went CGI on that baby’s face. Sorry, Sunny, but your face creeped me out and not in the right ways! However, I absolutely loved Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. I can’t think of better casting than that. Perfection.

Fisher: I loved the opening scene where the Baudelaire orphans are on the beach and Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket is in a 50s style bathing romper narrating the story.  I died laughing!  He’s the MVP of the show, for sure.  I’m also obsessed that the person of indeterminate gender is so aware of current events in the world around them and has some of the best side rants.  It’s even more hilarious that Count Olaf doesn’t know what they are talking about half of the time.    

Sarah: Yes! Olaf even says at one point, “I don’t understand any of these words that you’re saying.”

Fisher: I know right!  It makes the tragedy of the Baudelaire orphans so much more tangible because this idiot manages to outwit all of the adults in the world even when the kids know exactly what he’s up to. 

Well, if you haven’t already guessed, I’m a massive fan of a good book adaptation, so there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind when evaluating whether or not it’s successful.  First, I like to see if the adaptation conveys the true essence of the source material.  Second, if they do make significant changes, the changes need to make sense in the transition from print to visual media.  Some of the best book adaptations like Game of Thrones understand how important these aspects are to fans.  Like, you can change some elements along the way, but you have to maintain the integrity of the original work.    

Sarah: Absolutely. Sometimes it can get tricky, though, when the author of the story also finds themselves in a screenwriting position. I think JK Rowling can struggle a bit because she wants to flush out the characters more and more and her audience is like, “But, maybe I didn’t need to know the genealogy of that wizard’s owl.” Stephen King is another one who comes to mind (and, for the record, I adore JK Rowling and Stephen King). But, remember when he made The Shining into a miniseries because he was unhappy with the Stanley Kubrick film? That didn’t go so well.

Fisher: Haha.  However, you know there are some Harry Potter fans who would totally read a 1,000 page tome on owl genealogy if JK Rowling wrote it.  It’s nice that Lemony Snicket can go back, revisit his earlier work, and in many ways improve it or answer lingering fan questions.  I think we all wondered how Count Olaf came into guardianship of the Baudelaire orphans, and this series answers stuff like that.  It makes me excited for future seasons because I felt that the books left us with so many cliffhangers that we may actually get some sense of closure – even if it is unfortunate.  Overall, do you feel Netflix succeeded in creating a series that is better than the books?     

Sarah: No, I think I still like the books more. What about you?

Fisher: As far as the earlier books go, I think that the show improved upon them by the addition of new material like we discussed before.  I do like the show better in that regard.  That being said, my opinion may change once they adapt some of my favorites in the series because I want them to play out just as I imagined.  As a final aside, why do you think this series is so important for people to read or watch today?

Sarah: Dealing with struggles in an obviously make-believe way can help kids confront their own problems in real life. Obviously the situations are exaggerated, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are great role models. I love that the kids are the most intelligent people in the stories. Children can recognize when they’re being minimized. That’s hard for adults to understand, but Lemony Snicket gets it.  Also, it’s just fantastic escapism. Everyone, regardless of age, can use more of that in their lives.

Fisher: I also think that this series helps bring a new perspective to situations.  I got into A Series of Unfortunate Events when my life was in a bit of an upheaval.  In a way, it was therapeutic to read about the perseverance of the Baudelaire orphans.  No matter what terrible circumstances life threw at them, they were able to keep moving forward because they had each other for support.  And, if you can think to yourself: at least there isn’t a murderous count who will stop at nothing to steal your enormous fortune, it helps you stay positive even when the world appears to be a bleak, dire, and oppressive place.

-Sarah Mathews and Fisher Adwell are public services assistants at Lawrence Public Library.