Enter the Ominous Count Olaf We Had All Hoped For
With the Lemony Snicket film adaptation less-than-satisfying, viewers hope the newly-announced Netflix series will do it justice.
By Ashley Wertz, University of Pittsburgh
Lackluster book-to-film adaptations are nothing new.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many a fantastic book butchered on the big screen for no reason other than the inability to keep the important parts of the plot, well, important. From “The Golden Compass” to “I Am Number Four,” well-loved books have been stripped of their nuance and replaced with Hollywood spectacles, like unnecessary romance or some explosions. Forget the deep and meaningful topics and heart-wrenching scenes. It’s best to just replace them with overdone CGI and mediocre performances from otherwise great actors.
Enter Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” If you haven’t had the joy/misery of reading this middle grade series, here’s a quick run-down: A trio of children are orphaned when their parents are killed in a house fire. Said trio are put into the custody of Count Olaf, a peculiar and previously unknown family “friend.” They are thrust into a game of cat and mouse with Count Olaf when they find out he is only interested in their sizable inheritance. Not to spoil anything, but the title clearly suggests that nothing in the Baudelaire children’s lives goes smoothly for about thirteen books.
In 2004, the series was adapted into a movie with Jim Carrey playing the humorously homicidal Count Olaf. And though Carrey’s performance may have been the best part of the film, he still couldn’t capture the true horror of the conniving Count Olaf. Seriously, anyone who is willing to kill some kids for cash has got to be pretty scary. And if you know anything about Jim Carrey, it’s that his expertise lies more in the realm of contorted facial expressions and floral shirts. To make matters worse, the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, are portrayed as morose caricatures instead of multi-faceted individuals. Their despair seems more like an aesthetic, Tim Burton-esque choice than anything else.
But aside from the casting choices, one of the biggest qualms fans had with the film was its fast-paced nature. Instead of adapting the first book into one movie, the filmmakers condensed the first three books into one sloppy mash up. If anything, this decision makes me think “Dreamworks” wasn’t too optimistic about the possibility of finishing the series. And if there’s anything that crashes a franchise faster, it’s insecurity. As books, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is anything but apprehensive. Though the series is considered middle grade fiction, Lemony Snicket does not attempt to create a sanitized version of his story in order to spare his readers the raw feelings of fear and loss that draw you into the ill-fated lives of his characters.
Like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” does not assume a younger audience can’t handle its heavy subject matter. Both Pullman and Snicket wrote books that would appeal to all ages. Interesting content shouldn’t be restrained to adults. So when the movie for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” played down the more thought-provoking elements of the books, it became a bit boring. If you’ve never read the books, then I’m sure it’s an enjoyable movie. But if you know what’s missing, it’s difficult to appreciate without bias.
But a new age of live-action book adaptations is upon us at last, and hopefully it can do justice to great works that have been wronged in the past. Netflix is known for its tendency to roll the dice on its original series, so it’s no surprise that the company decided to take “A Series of Unfortunate Events” under its wing. Since the success of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Outlander,” the way creators think of adapting longer works into visual media has changed.
People don’t want to watch an eight hour movie, but will gladly binge thirteen hours of a show in one sitting. This is the brilliance of the TV show format.
With more episodes, there’s more time to actually develop characters and storylines instead of watering them down to their least intriguing form for the sake of time constraints.
Of course, you can argue that shows change things from the source material all the time. And you’re right. But unless the change is completely unnecessary to the heart of the original story, a little tweaking can be forgiven. I think some flexibility is in order when switching from a medium based on imagination to one that relies on what is actually in front of your eyes.
So what can Netflix do for “A Series of Unfortunate Events”? Well, for starters it can make the show actually feel like the books. I’m talking “Stranger Things” style terror and uncertainty mixed with hopelessness and ambiguous endings. But instead of a Demagorgon, the worst fear is a greedy man. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about the casting choice for Count Olaf in the new series. When one thinks of Neil Patrick Harris, they usually imagine a suit-wearing womanizer or a young doctor. But from what I’ve seen in trailers, Harris is already much more ominous and less used for comic relief than Jim Carrey’s interpretation. Not only can Netflix mend Count Olaf’s character, they will also have the chance to use all thirteen books while completing the series with the same bittersweet ending. If you recall, the 2004 movie was wrapped up almost too well, betraying the original ending’s intended lack of closure.
Another strength of the series is the sheer amount of interesting characters that have yet to be used to their full potential. In the movie, viewers meet Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine, played by the talented Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep. But their stories are condensed to only a few scenes each and the audience barely gets to scratch the surface. Hopefully Netflix can right this wrong and introduce even more characters while giving individuals like Uncle Monty a proper storyline.
So if the old saying, “good things come to those who wait” means anything, perhaps on January 13, 2017, fans of the misery-ridden series will finally be rewarded for the long wait. And heck, if “A Series of Unfortunate Events” can be reborn, who’s to say other favorites can’t too? (I’m looking at you, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”)