Why Netflix getting Lemony Snicket right means so much

We ponder the approaches that could be taken by Netflix's much-anticipated Lemony Snicket adaptation, A Series Of Unfortunate Events...

Watching a teaser for Netflix’s upcoming Lemony Snicket adaptation recently turned me into a giddy wreck. Everything I was seeing was so beautifully ominous, so atmospheric and evocative of the singular tone of a book series I love very dearly, that I could fairly say The Force Awakens suddenly became a distant second on the list of things I can’t wait for.

There was only one problem: the trailer was fake.

Honestly, it was hard to be mad at something so lovingly crafted, something obviously made by fans for fans. And if I was one of the big executives at Netflix, I would be hiring whoever made that trailer immediately and putting them to work on the show, because whoever they are, they clearly get Snicket. (News broke recently that True Blood‘s Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfield are Netflix’s actual hirees for the show.)

There are a lot of Lemony Snicket fans in the world, but what is surprising is how many of them haven’t read the books. The 2004 Jim Carrey starring adaptation actually garnered a bit of a cult following for itself, and fair enough; it’s not a bad film in its own right. It’s appropriately gothic, it captures the best parts of the first three books without being a hundred per cent faithful and Jim Carrey actually manages to sneak some menace in beneath his mugging. On the whole, it’s a decent movie and it’s probably a nicely accessible introduction to the altogether more complex world of author Daniel Handler’s novels.

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The film’s shortcomings really aren’t its own fault. The best adaptations are ones that capture the essence of their source material without necessarily hewing to the particulars, but the essence of A Series Of Unfortunate Events was never going to translate to one relatively standalone film. Those books are characterised by clever, pitch black humor, layered literary references, an intricate conspiracy plot and a very real darkness permeating all the improbable twists and absurd developments. It’s arguable that the biggest pleasure of the book series was the slowly deepening mystery that seemed to involve just about every innocuous character the Baudelaire orphans encountered over the course of the 13 books, and while the movie certainly tried to include a variant of that, there was no room for the tiny clues, red herrings and slow burn reveals of the books.

Additionally, while the film is funny, there was really no way for it to include a lot of the wry witticisms and wordplay that fill Snicket’s narration on the page, adding both depth and absurdity to the primary plot. In the books, Snicket will often trail off on strange non-sequiturs or convoluted analogies that clearly have something to do with his fraught personal life which, as the series goes on, we learn has a lot more to do with the story at hand than we may have initially assumed.

It’s a great example of the cleverness of the series; strange, absurd jokes taking on a new and surprising clarity as we get deeper and deeper into the story. Growing up with the series, it’s almost intoxicating how Handler not only trusts his young audience to keep up with a tangled and layered story, but peppers the narrative with hidden clues and messages that only the most obsessed fan (me) would go looking for. There is a lot to be said for treating your audience with respect, and the fiercely un-patronising nature of A Series Of Unfortunate Events is what has made it such a rewarding series to return to even in adulthood.

And that’s not even touching on the phenomenal prequel series, All The Wrong Questions. Following a young Snicket during his apprenticeship as an investigator, it manages to both offer plenty of satisfying Easter eggs for long-time fans and tell a story completely its own. All The Wrong Questions beautifully deepens the world of the series, enriching an already fascinating mythology with new places, events and characters. The strange, heightened world of Lemony Snicket is in many ways as compelling as any great fantasy universe, and with supplementary books such as The Beatrice Letters or Lemony Snicket: An Unauthorised Autobiography filling in further backstory details, it’s a world with plenty to discover.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that the film did the best it could reasonably have been expected to do without a guaranteed sequel. Television, however, offers a very different means of adaptation. And a television series that will be released all at once, intended specifically for binge watching, seems like an appropriate medium for this particular story.

You only need to glance at Brett Helquist’s beautiful illustrations for the book series to see the visual potential of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. And to be fair, it’s a potential the film capitalised on, with some excellent Tim Burton-esque gothic production design. But the film itself was only based on the first three books, and the level of invention and memorable settings that fill the rest of the series is crying out for a screen representation. From the fashion obsessed high society of Dark Avenue, to the bleak Prufrock Preparatory School to the nautical adventures of The Grim Grotto and the aptly named Hotel Denouement in the penultimate instalment, A Series Of Unfortunate Events is basically a production designer’s dream.

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But the color and variety of the books begs certain logistical questions of the television series. After all, the books are not especially long and the hundred minute film arguably included the highlights of the first three instalments without really feeling like it was leaving out anything crucial. So just how will Netflix approach the adaptation? A series of thirteen hour long episodes would be ideal, but that almost immediately precludes any future instalments and, with the vastly different settings of each book, what kind of budget would be required to do this universe justice?

While Netflix’s other offerings illustrate that they clearly don’t want for money, it’s hard to see much profitability in a one season limited run with a high per-episode budget. This prospective single season, after all, would require an episode set almost entirely underwater, in and around duelling submarines and sea monsters, a finale mostly taking place on a desert island, a carnival full of wild animals in the middle of a desolate wasteland and a village overrun with crows. And not a single one of those elaborate sets would carry over to another episode.

Of course, it’s likely that the series may take a different approach. To do the books justice, the above idea is probably most ideal, but realistically we’re going to either see a less faithful adaptation adhering mainly to the style of the series or a sort of extension of certain plots making each book last several episodes. Whether or not this could work depends entirely on the quality of the adaptation, but for all the literary references, fascinating backstory and deviously clever humour, the individual plots of each A Series Of Unfortunate Events novel are not especially complex.

For the first half of the series they are all basically variants of the Baudelaires meeting a new eccentric guardian in an equally eccentric setting before Olaf turns up in disguise, wreaks havoc and escapes as soon as he is caught out. After book seven, the plot inverts; the Baudelaires are on the run, framed for Olaf’s “murder,” and have to follow their nemesis from location to location in disguise, trying to prove their innocence all the while. Having variants on these two themes as the main plot of each episode could potentially become repetitive without really distinct and individually compelling settings and characters, which, again, may require a pretty high budget to achieve.

It’s possible that the plots of each book could be fleshed out, but it’s hard to see a way to achieve that without having to unnaturally distend a lot of story. Plus, it’s easy to deal with a relatively repetitive structure when each new situation is potentially brief or confined to one episode. Having to spend several instalments investing in a storyline that is basically just going to reset at the end could prove trying, particularly for book fans who already know how this is going to go.

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Alternatively the series can do a Hannibal: adhere to the spirit, themes and characters of the source material while mixing up the chronology and major plot elements into something relatively new. But so much of A Series Of Unfortunate Events is built around the crazy new circumstances of each book and often part of the thrill was in seeing what Handler could come up with this time. Compromising that in any way seems unwise.

The benefit of the series of that there is just so much good material it offers the producers. Characters like Mr. Poe, Esme Squalor, Carmelita Spats, Mr. Remora or Captain Widdershins would be great fun for good actors looking to take on what essentially amount to extended cameos, while larger roles like Olaf and potentially Snicket himself could be brilliant in the right hands. Additionally, it will be fun to see how the offbeat narration is handled; if the series goes for a basic voiceover like in the movie or if perhaps we get to see some of Snicket’s anecdotes in the form of cutaway gags, montages or even animation sequences. It is a challenging proposition to try and match the imagination and invention of the books in a visual manner, but should it succeed there is no reason that A Series Of Unfortunate Events couldn’t stake its claim as something special and unlike anything else on television, much the same way as its source material did for the world of YA literature.

And if the series is a success, there is no reason that further instalments adapting All The Wrong Questions and other spinoff books couldn’t happen. Questions, for example, is written as a pastiche of noir and detective fiction; imagine a four episode, black and white hardboiled miniseries set in this world. While adapting the entire Series Of Unfortunate Events into one season may be limiting in certain ways, if it is successful then Snicket’s universe is ripe for expansion and further exploration. And if they run out of material there is no reason the writers and producers couldn’t work with Handler himself to see what else he could come up with. The promise of this series is enormous, and while not without its challenges it’s hard not to feel kind of giddy at the thought of what these episodes might contain.

The reality is that at this point we know so little about what shape this series might take that all we can do is speculate. As far as we’re aware it might even end up being animated, making much of the above moot. But whatever happens, I think we have reason to be excited. A Series Of Unfortunate Events is one of the most original and brilliant young adult book series to come out in the last two decades. It provided a thrillingly different counterpoint to so much of the standard hero’s journey fare that was being released around the same time and has long been crying out for an adaptation that really does justice to what was so special about this series. We can only hope that the people responsible for the adaptation have the same love and respect for the books as whoever made the phenomenal fake trailer. As long as that’s the case, I’m happy to trust whatever avenue they choose to take, because frankly, any more time spent in this world is fine by me.