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Friday, 17 February 2017

A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017)

A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017).

I sympathise with people trying to adapt Lemony Snicket's works. There are books that are more cinematic in style, with a heavy focus on action and visuals and sound, and then there are books on the far other end of the spectrum, that lean heavily on the literary form and thus don't tend well to adaptation. Arguably, it'd be difficult to even do a more free-wheeling analogy adaptation of them, since so much of the story of the books is intrinsically tied up in the form they inhabit.

Well, Netflix has decided to try, apparently, paying no heed to the last attempt to do so, which ended in disaster.

Adapting the first four books of the series, A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the three Baudelaire children -- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny -- as they are shuffled from home to home and relentlessly pursued by the villainous Count Olaf, an actor and criminal who is obsessed with acquiring their fortune. As the three move from guardian to guardian, they begin to realise that their parents were involved in a conspiracy, and that Olaf (along with Lemony Snicket, the mysterious narrator who presides over their adventures) is also a part of it. Meanwhile, a man and a woman attempt to return to their children.

The three leads. Two leads. Does Sunny count?

The early part of this series -- by which I mean 'about the first three episodes' -- suffers from a problem you don't often see in television: It tries too hard to be faithful, and attempts to hew so closely to its source material that it actually undermines itself. Episodes are slow and ponderous in their pacing, the storyline is broken up frequently in a way that just feels jarring, and to be perfectly frank, it doesn't feel like lead actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are actually doing even a passable job of, you know, acting

Lines are delivered in the characteristically placid mode of Snicket's characters, a thing which works in books but less so when we can actually hear those lines; the story shudders short for frequent and discursive narrative segments; and the writing does a poor job of adapting the book's storyline into a well-paced and interesting television storyline.

Even in that early part of the series, though, it does nonetheless have its charms. Patrick Warburton is a lot of fun as Lemony Snicket, Neil Patrick Harris is a show-stealer as Count Olaf, and when the show remembers it's a black comedy, it actually manages to be pretty funny.

Warburton makes a very good Snicket.

After those first three episodes, though, the series begins to improve sharply. It's difficult to pin down a single improvement that made that possible: Part of it is down to Weissman and Hynes settling into their roles some and finding a pleasant balance between the characters' distinctive tones and actually portraying emotion; part of it is down to the writers taking a few more liberties; a lot of it is down to the writers just figuring out how to adapt the story in a way that works on television; and oddly, a lot of it is down to the reduced presence of Harris' Count Olaf. In the early episodes, he's almost a suffocating presence, suffusing every scene, but he works a lot better both as a villain and as a comedic character when the audience isn't constantly bombarded with him.

From the start of episode four onwards, the show is actually a lot of fun to watch, sharply written and demonstrating a lot of Snicket's wit as a writer. But the first three episodes are a slog, and so just about anybody could be forgiven for not making it that far.

On a technical side, this show also does pretty well. The set design has a certain Tim Burton-esque quality to it, with stark colour contrasts, ramshackle buildings that look like they shouldn't be able to stand up, and so on, and so forth; the music, composed by James Newton Howard, Sven Faulconer, and Chris Bacon, is appropriately atmospheric and whimsical; and the acting is by and large pretty strong.

Some people doing things.

As is now the standard for Netflix shows, it ends rather abruptly -- in this case, just after the Miserable Mill -- in a way that makes it feel rather incomplete, and while that bothers me more than a little, it's something that is maybe somewhat unavoidable when dealing with a continuous series of novels that are meant to form one coherent story, not multiple series of a television show. Again, we hit upon problems of faithfulness, but this one is a minor quibble.

All in all, A Series of Unfortunate Events is pretty good, and it provides an interesting case study when thinking about adaptations in television. There are very few true transpositions in television adaptation, so A Series of Unfortunate Events is in many respects an outlier, and that alone makes it very intriguing viewing.

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