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A Reboot Worth Making: How Netflix’s “A Series Of Unfortunate Events” Gets It Right

Director Barry Sonnenfeld and Lemony Snicket himself on why they wanted to do a “darker, sadder” version of the Baudelaire orphans’ story.

A Reboot Worth Making: How Netflix’s “A Series Of Unfortunate Events” Gets It Right
[Photos: Joe Lederer, courtesy of Netflix]

Viewers might not want to watch A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not just because the refrain for the show’s theme song warns, quite explicitly, to “Look away,” and not just because enigmatic author/narrator Lemony Snicket opens each episode with an apology for the next hour of unpleasant entertainment. No, perhaps the best argument against watching the new Netflix series—out Friday—is the mere fact that it is a reboot. And “reboot” is an unfortunate word, indeed.

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Fortunately, A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the streaming giant’s strangest, most daring offerings to date. And as such, it makes one of the strongest cases for rebooting in recent memory.

It was only a little over a decade ago, when children’s fantasy novels meant big box office money, that Snicket’s Unfortunate Events had its first go at an adaptation. After all, it seemed inevitable: The tale of the orphaned Baudelaire children rotating through a menagerie of woefully inept guardians lent itself to cinematic retelling. But rather than going the way of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, the 2004 film version fell in line with Eragon and The Spiderwick Chronicles as another stalled attempt at a would-be franchise based off otherwise bestselling source material. Whether it was Jim Carrey’s attention-grabbing performance as the villainous Count Olaf or the decision to compress the first three novels into a two-hour feature, the movie just didn’t catch on—and for a while, it seemed like that was that.

But when Netflix came calling with the idea of revisiting Snicket’s world, it was Snicket himself who dispelled any notions that viewers might no longer care about Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. Daniel Handler, the real-life author who uses “Lemony Snicket” as a pen name, saw a reboot as a means of reconnecting with a fanbase that never truly disappeared. “I think there were a lot of people who grew up on these books who were curious to see what was being made with them,” he says.

More importantly, it presented a rare opportunity to right a wrong. While the film wasn’t a commercial failure (it did more than just break even), it failed to capture the spirit of the books and the fullness of the world that Handler envisioned. Despite the bloated budget, it functioned more as a humdrum vehicle for its A-list star rather than the trio driving the action of the story. And so flipping the perspective back to the Baudelaire orphans was Handler and Netflix’s first task in course correction.

That meant bringing back Barry Sonnenfeld, who through a series of, well, you know, found himself unceremoniously booted from the director’s chair the first time around (the same went for Handler, who would have written the Carrey film’s screenplay). Known for directing the Men in Black series, Sonnenfeld—who retained an executive producer credit for the movie—wasn’t necessarily the first choice to helm the series, if only because Netflix wanted a major reboot uninvolved with anyone from the original outing.

But given their history, Sonnenfeld shared many of Handler’s ideas for reimagining the Baudelaires’ world, making him an ideal partner to tackle the project. The decision to spend two episodes on each book (this inaugural season covers “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” “The Wide Window,” and “The Miserable Mill” for a total of eight parts) came early. Both knew that a serialized and more leisurely approach would allow them to go deeper into each installment, which tied into their mission of going smaller. Where the movie had lost its integrity in its decision to go broader and more comedic, the series would pare down the fluff and keep the world contained, thereby preserving much of the books’ tragicomic sensibilities.

“What the movie was is what the movie was, and it focused too much on Count Olaf and not enough on the kids,” Sonnenfeld says. “We wanted a sadder, darker version.”

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Sadness and darkness are germane to the books; after all, the story begins with the Baudelaires’ parents perishing in a fire that consumes their home and way of life. From there, they find themselves at the mercy of bumbling adults—“Our philosophy is that all kids are great and all adults are ineffectual,” Sonnenfeld says—who ultimately take them to their new guardian, the vain and money-hungry Count Olaf. His obsession with getting his hands on the Baudelaires’ considerable inheritance leaves him treating the children as little more than household servants, ones he psychologically, and sometimes physically, abuses.

But if that sounds like weighty material for a show Netflix has labeled “family” fare, don’t worry; the series goes to great lengths to view and explain those acts of malice through a child’s eyes, perhaps more so than the Olaf-centric movie ever did. And that, Handler admits, was one of the trickiest balancing acts to pull off.

“A child’s perspective encompasses everything from dialogue to set design to the structure of a story,” he says. “So an office has to look and feel like what a child thinks of an office job without really knowing about it. And the mechanics of Count Olaf’s plot have to feel like a plot you would think up when you’re 11, rather than some overt act of adult evil.”

That being said, Sonnenfeld and Handler realized the importance that Count Olaf plays in the Baudelaires’ story, which, over the course of 13 books, becomes as much a journey about evading his attempts at stealing their fortune as it is about unraveling the mysterious circumstances around their parents’ death. And if he felt more like a punchline in the film than a real foe, then much of that is owed to Jim Carrey’s performance, which, while serviceable, never quite transcended his usual rotation of funnymen to capture Olaf’s deviousness felt throughout the series.

Here, the show soft-reboots the character and pulls an about-face: Olaf’s humor is less overt and more accidental, blended instead with twinges of desperation and occasional pathos as he menaces the Baudelaires into submission. Neil Patrick Harris plays Olaf absent of any dimwittedness, which makes particular scenes (one involving a slap, the other more predatory than you’re likely to see in any other kids’ programming this year) all the more unnerving against the context of using the Baudelaires to further his gains—whatever means necessary.

“If we don’t have scenes like those, what happens then is viewers only see comedy. Comedy no longer lets you feel the kids are in big danger,” Sonnenfeld says. “You need a real villain. And if the audience and our characters don’t feel that Olaf is a real threat, then the show won’t work.”

While retooling Olaf’s character took a back-to-basics approach, Sonnenfeld and Handler also realized they would have to make some changes for the adaptation to truly work. The first change was to go, as Sonnenfeld puts it, “more stylized but very contained,” which may have been a direct response to the movie’s more bombastic tone. Citing the books’ theatrical sensibilities, the creative team compared reading the Baudelaires’ story to watching a play—something production designer Bo Welch wanted the visual language to establish in the first two episodes.

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“This is the kind of material that is best served by stylization, which enhances the emotional content of any given scene,” Welch says. So that meant shooting mostly on stages rather than on location, and incorporating bits of CGI where it made sense, particularly in the third and fourth episodes. And so while some of the obvious bits of backdrop and computer animation would threaten to undermine any other show’s world-building, here, it actually enhances the play-like format. “You don’t want it to look totally fake, nor do you want it to look totally real.”

But perhaps the biggest departure from either the books or the movie is the on-screen presence of Lemony Snicket. Where Snicket had mostly been kept an unseen but omnipresent narrator in the past, the series actually gives a face to the enigmatic author. Played by Patrick Warburton, he appears in frequent fourth-wall-breaking bursts, recounting the Baudelaires’ travails with just the right mix of dryness and don’t-watch-this meta-humor (“That story is streaming elsewhere,” he says to viewers seeking cheerier alternatives). And for any diehard fans who call this jumping the shark, don’t worry: the idea actually came from Handler himself.

“It makes for better television,” he says. “In a film, you can get away with one or two obscured shots. But I think that for a narrator who’s going to be narrating 26 hours of entertainment, you have to show something.”

Handler also says Snicket’s inclusion affords them the opportunity to expand the Baudelaires’ world at a faster pace than the books. A series of interconnected tunnels beneath the Baudelaire mansion, for instance, doesn’t show up until later installments; in the show, we see Snicket walking through them as early as the pilot episode. Most of that, Handler admits, has to do with the television format itself. “All kinds of things get literalized on TV. With a book, you can drop a hint in a stray sentence,” he says. “Things that are happening on the outskirts of the story that are barely hinted at in the books are brought to life here.”

With two planned seasons left to cover the remaining nine books, Sonnenfeld and Handler acknowledge the upcoming challenge of having to accommodate the widening scope of the series (one entry takes place almost entirely in a submarine underwater). The books will get darker, but they aren’t too concerned with their target audience’s capacity for grownup material; after all, it’s why they bothered retelling the Baudelaires’ story in the first place.

“The darkness in the books is part of a long tradition of menace in children’s literature,” Handler says. “When it seems like a sick joke or when it seems like pointless violence, that seems particularly dark for young people. But when it’s just thinking about the troubles of the world where evil meets incompetence . . . those are themes that are appealing for children.”

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