There’s a greasy feeling that settles over you as you watch A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix’s new take on Lemony Snicket’s gothic kid-lit books. From the theme song on, the viewer is pummeled with unpleasantness: children orphaned, neglected, and abused; clueless innocents cruelly murdered; a whole world awash in inconvenience and ennui. At every turn, the show stops to ask the viewer: “Why are you watching these dismal things?” And the viewer thinks: Why indeed?
The strange thing about this feeling is that the books never evoked it. And they were plenty dismal: “If you are interested in stories with happy endings,” Snicket famously warns in The Bad Beginning, “you would be better off reading some other book.”
In print, this admonition drew the reader in: Why would an author warn his readers away? On screen, it somehow just rubs in the schadenfreude: Why would a viewer want to entertain himself with this kind of gratuitous suffering?
So what’s the difference? To understand this is to understand why Netflix’s offering fails — and to remind ourselves why Snicket’s books so dramatically succeeded.
The Bad Beginning hit shelves and the Scholastic catalog in 1999, dropping a nuke on the somnambulant preteen worlds of the Animorphs and R. L. Stine. Its postmodern-gothic setting, memorable characters, and offbeat, self-referential style made this modern fairy tale a revelation — Tim Burton meets John Barth meets the Brothers Grimm.
The setup is dismal and simple. After the three Baudelaire children — Violet the inventor, Klaus the researcher, and Sunny the razor-toothed baby — lose their parents and home in a terrible fire, they are sent to live with the villainous Count Olaf, a distant relative bent on stealing their immense family fortune. Olaf pursues the orphans across the books, leaving a trail of murdered innocents in his wake.
The recurring plot is typical for serial children’s lit: In each new book, Nancy Drew runs across another mystery to solve, Harry Potter heads back to Hogwarts for another year of hormones and hijinks, and the Baudelaire orphans escape Olaf’s clutches, while their hapless guardian does not.
So what sets A Series of Unfortunate Events apart from the pack? Simply put, through one of literature’s great metafictional devices — a term which here means “Lemony Snicket, the most compelling narrator children’s fiction has ever seen.”
Who is Lemony Snicket? In our world, he’s a gimmick, the pseudonym of real-life author Daniel Handler. In the books, he’s the linchpin — the narrator who gives the proceedings their mournfully comic hue through his commentary to his young readers, in which he defines difficult words and dispenses life advice:
Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.
But Snicket is far more than just an idiosyncratic voice. This is because A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t simply the story of the Baudelaires; it’s the story of the Baudelaires as related by Snicket, a shady researcher who has a mysterious interest in bringing their story before the public eye. The books themselves are the fruits of Snicket’s labors; in other words, A Series of Unfortunate Events exists within its own universe as nonfiction.
Snicket’s trick, then, is to draw his readers into his universe as participants in this nonfiction, strengthening their willful suspension of disbelief even as he breaks the fourth wall to address them directly. Consider this introductory description of the orphans’ fourth guardian, a lumbermill owner with a name so unpronounceable everyone just refers to him as “Sir”:
The man was smoking a cigar, and the smoke from the cigar covered his entire head. The cloud of smoke made the Baudelaire children very curious as to what his face really looked like, and you may be curious as well, but you will have to take that curiosity to your grave, for I will tell you now, before we go any further, that the Baudelaires never saw this man’s face, and neither did I, and neither will you.
There are many things that make “Sir” memorable — for one thing, the mill he runs is a Marxian nightmare that feeds its workers gum for lunch and pays them in coupons — but nothing stands out more than that cloud of smoke. It reinforces Snicket’s role as researcher and ours as receiver: If he couldn’t figure out a piece of information, we don’t get it. When he introduces a bit character or location, he does so not simply to entertain his readers, but to educate them, to illuminate for them a new corner of the Baudelaires’ world.
And it’s a world that needs illumination. Complicated and mysterious, it seems to be designed to frustrate the reader’s attempts to categorize it. It’s our world and it isn’t: Characters discuss the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, but all the locations, from Lake Lachrymose to the Swarthy Swamp, are strictly fictional. It’s the past and it isn’t: In The Hostile Hospital, the Baudelaires send a telegram from a general store which also happens to stock fiber-optic cable.
But the way the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events most strongly resembles our own is in its pathologies: craven consumerism, a sensational and unscrupulous media, and a vapid, credulous populace too preoccupied with their own petty problems and pastimes to care that everything’s going to hell. (The Baudelaires spend much of the later books on the run from the law after they are framed as murderers in their city’s newspaper The Daily Punctilio — compare to our own fake news bonanza.) As hellscapes go, it’s more Kafka than Metallica: Scourge-wielding demons do not abound, but bankers too caught up in their work to notice child abuse do.
From this frenzied pit of ignorance and inconvenience, Lemony Snicket rises like a beacon of light. His purpose is not to entertain or to deceive or to profit. Like Oedipus, his purpose is to cut through that noise to the truth — the genuine, unflinching, and, yes, unfortunate account of the maligned Baudelaire orphans. You’re not going to like it, he says — but if you want to know the real story, read on.
Seen in this way, A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes even more than a simply engrossing tale or a clever piece of metafiction: It becomes, in fact, a heartfelt apologia for the written word and a fiery invective against a world that has decided it’s better off without it. Trouble envelops the Baudelaires, but in libraries they repeatedly find the fortitude and the resourcefulness they need to carry on. So it is for us all, Snicket proposes. Modern life rushes headlong; a library, where the world is quiet, offers respite from its insanity. Books provide a means of transcending the treachery of the world for the Baudelaires — and, Snicket promises, for his reader, too.
So how well does this ethos survive its translation to a streaming television series? To be brief: Not well.
Early praise for Netflix’s new series centers around its successful capturing of the “feel” of the books. This is true insofar as much of the series’ dialogue is preserved, and dreadful tragedies are presented in an offbeat, blackly funny way. But the dark comedy is, after all, only window dressing to the series’s chief virtues. And on each of these, Netflix’s offering misses the mark.
The first warning sign is visible in Snicket’s own jump to the screen. As the action proceeds, the show periodically takes a moment to allow Snicket, played by the excellent Patrick Warburton, to address the viewer directly — much in the manner of the books. As a narrator, he’s dry and funny. But a narrator — and here is the problem — is all that he is.
In the Series of Unfortunate Events books, Snicket is the only point of contact between his story and his readers. All of the story is his: not just the segues and definitions, but the dialogue and action as well, are the products of his research which he presents for his readers’ edification. In the show, the action proceeds on its own, while the viewer observes, unmediated, from his third-person vantage. Snicket is left to pop up periodically, reduced to the role of color commentator. This simple transition has dramatically unmade, chlorofluorocarbonlike, the subtle ecology of author and reader that gives Snicket’s universe its richness.
More damning still is the twisting of the reader-turned-viewer’s role in the proceedings.
Of course, the primary purpose of the Series of Unfortunate Events books was to entertain — they are, after all, children’s fiction. But they achieved that entertainment through an extraordinary transformation: The reader was invited to alter his perspective and approach the books not as children’s fiction at all, but as a work of critical and momentous truth. He pays no attention to Snicket’s admonition that his books are no fun because, in this mode, fun is not what he is after.
But this mode is utterly inaccessible to Netflix’s adaptation. After all, the story of the Baudelaires is already out in the public — what’s the point in televising it? The only possible answer: TV is more entertaining than print. And so the Netflix adaption devours the lesson of its remarkable progenitor.
At a particularly grim moment in the show’s fifth episode, Snicket faces the camera and intones:
“My name is Lemony Snicket, and it is my job to report the history of the Baudelaire orphans, but it can’t be that you have nothing better to do.
“The Baudelaires believed, incorrectly, that they would never see their Aunt Josephine again, but it can’t be that you are interested in watching them suffer as her last words echo again and again throughout her empty and doomed house.
“It can’t be.”
There’s that greasy feeling again. If only he were right.
Andrew Egger is a senior studying history and journalism.