Apart from Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my constant childhood companions. I can’t count the number of times I’ve reread them, the hours I spent trying to work out what VFD stood for, and the frustration I felt when the series ended with so many unanswered questions. I actually enjoyed the 2004 movie, even though it wasn’t an entirely faithful adaptation (I tend to think of them as two separate entities), so I was intrigued when Netflix announced the TV show.
I binged the show in a day, and I must admit I’m disappointed. A lot of the reviews I’ve read seem to be favourable, but I felt like it left a lot to be desired.
Let’s start off with the characters. I wasn’t completely sold on Neil Patrick Harris when he was originally cast as the dastardly Count Olaf, and I’m still not 100% behind his portrayal. I think it’s because I can’t separate NPH from Barney Stinson after watching him in the same role for a decade, but also Jim Carrey cracked me up in the movie. The children, meanwhile, were okay, but I didn’t love them. I felt like they were very wooden; in the books, they felt so much more real than they did here. Violet also came across as younger than 14 whereas the book-Violet is much more mature. Having recently watched Stranger Things, I know that there are superbly talented child actors out there, but these guys...I don’t believe they are who they claim they are.
I also wasn’t into Patrick Warbuton’s on-screen presence as Lemony Snicket. I don’t mind the narration, but most of the time, it sounded like he was phoning it in. Jude Law did a better job narrating the movie from the shadows (I liked that we never knew what Lemony Snicket looked like), but perhaps it was the English accent that I appreciated?
One good thing they did with the casting was the amount of diversity. From Count Olaf’s henchmen to the children’s other guardians, they made the effort to cast non-white actors, and I appreciate the effort - it doesn’t change the story to make Aunt Josephine black (plus Alfre Woodard was a delight).
Aesthetically, the show is gorgeous. The bright colours of Justice Strauss’ home compared to the Gothic feels of Olaf’s house; the reptilian hedges and steampunk-y door at Uncle Monty’s; Damocles Dock and Aunt Josephine’s wide window; and burned down Paltryville outside of the Lucky Smells Lumbermill. I loved that the books never specified a time/place for these unfortunate events and the sets did a good job at continuing that timeless feeling (are they in the past or in the future?).
My favourite part was all the allusions to the rest of the books: confirming what VFD stood for (and all the different meanings); talking about Lemony Snicket; the SUGAR BOWL; even a vague reference to the All the Wrong Questions series (“when did you see her last?”); and, of course, the dedications to Beatrice at the start of each “book” (two-episode arc). I like that all those elements were included, but it doesn’t make up for all the random characters that were introduced.
I thought the way the Quagmires were introduced was interesting, but there was a part of their story line that was frustrating because it was so confusing and misleading. The Quagmires are one of my favourite parts of the later books, so I hope they're given a decent amount of screen time.
Overall, I was left feeling unsatisfied, a word which here means “disappointed by how different the show was, compared to my beloved books”, but I’m interested to see how they do a second (and third?) season, since they have another nine books full of characters and content to cover.