A Series of Unfortunate Reviews: “The Bad Beginning”

If you have come to this blog in the hopes of reading reviews that absolutely eviscerate the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events and heap endless praise upon the new Netflix series because it is superior to the film in every way, then you have come to the wrong place and should stop reading immediately.

I regret to inform you that this next series of reviews contains dreadful things, including a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the film and the show, critiques of the actors’ performances, and terrible attempts by the author to imitate Lemony Snicket’s writing style.

For you see, I personally found the movie to be “a decent adaptation,” a phrase which here means, “Jim Carrey was a decent Count Olaf, okay?”

Welcome to my next series of posts: reviewing several adaptations of A Series of Unfortunate Events, including the movie, the Netflix series, and the video game!  (Yes, there was a video game.  It was based on the movie.  I owned the GameCube version.)  Although Lemony Snicket would find this hard to believe, I think this is going to be much more pleasant than Dracula Month because I enjoyed these adaptations by and large.

I’ll be starting with the Netflix series, breaking it down by book.  The first two episodes of Season One adapt the plot of The Bad Beginning.  It’s decent, yet it does have some flaws.

Patrick Warburton really nails the character of Lemony Snicket with his somber, dry delivery of the many over-the-top tragic event that happen to the Baudelaires.  That said, there’s a big difference between the show version and the book version (which I didn’t notice until my friend, Alie pointed it out to me.  Thanks, Alie!).  We never see his face in the books or the movie; all pictures of Snicket show him in the shadows or with his back turned.  Not so with Netflix; he’s front and center throughout the show.  Does it matter?  Eh, it might have been better if we didn’t see him, but it’s not a decision that kills the show for me.

The Baudelaires themselves do a good job too.  My only issue is with Sunny.  I know that’s a little ridiculous since babies can’t really act, but she didn’t seem as expressive as Kara and Shelby Hoffman, who both played Sunny in the film.  She’s also voiced by Tara Strong in the show.  While I like Tara Strong and I got used to things after a while, I thought something felt off when I heard Sunny’s baby gibberish.  When I learned afterwards that an adult actress had made those noises, it explained everything.

In the books, there’s almost nothing funny about Count Olaf’s troupe.  (I say “almost” because they do have moments of dark humor, just like every other aspect of the books.)  Whereas in the show, they provide comic relief about 98% of the time that they’re on screen.  It actually works in their case because their lines are really funny.  It’s also an enormous improvement over their appearance in the movie.  See, in the movie, all they really get to do is show up, look menacing, and provide backup for Count Olaf, a phrase which here means “do absolutely nothing until Olaf needs an extra person to accomplish something.”

They have so much more personality in the show.  When they appear, you know exactly who they are; it doesn’t take a couple of seconds to think, “Oh.  Right.  He/She works for Olaf.”  They’re not just present during the dinner scene; they’re also seen throughout the second episode helping Olaf prepare for The Marvelous Marriage, fool Mr. Poe, and prevent the Baudelaires or V.F.D. from stopping their boss.  They always have a funny comment about the situation that helps them stay memorable.

Yet when the time comes for the hook-handed man to deliver a chilling threat to the Baudelaires, Usman Ally’s performance is scary in a believable way.  He’s fantastic at going back and forth between humorous and menacing.

Neil Patrick Harris’ performance, on the other hand, feels a little less believable in The Bad Beginning.  He also makes the constant switch between entertaining and scary, just not as successfully.  Maybe it’s because he’s the main villain, so there’s more pressure on him to be more of a threat.  He keeps having silly moments like the scene where Klaus reveals his evil plan and has to stop to inform the Count what “literally” and “figuratively” mean.

I guess this isn’t wrong, per se, because he does devolve more and more into comic relief later in the series.  It’s established that he’s not as well-read as the Baudelaires.  However, there’s a powerful moment in Chapter 9 when Olaf threatens to kill Sunny if Violet refuses to marry him:

Violet stared at him.  She had an odd feeling in her stomach, as if she were the one being thrown from a great height.  The really frightening thing about Olaf, she realized, was that he was very smart after all.  He wasn’t merely an unsavory drunken brute, but an unsavory, clever, drunken brute (pp. 113-114).

Although the show follows the plot of the book fairly well, I didn’t get that feeling about Olaf in the first two episodes.  It felt more like he came close to succeeding because of luck than cleverness.  He almost gets away with it because Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss don’t do enough to help the Baudelaires, not because he’s good at what he does.  Granted, the unhelpful nature of the other adults is a reoccurring theme in the books, so that’s not totally inaccurate either.

In the Netflix series, the biggest change to the story is the early inclusion of V.F.D.  There’s no explicit mention of V.F.D. in The Bad Beginning episodes, but we see volunteers working undercover to stop Olaf.  The book didn’t have so much as a hint of a secret organization, except for their symbol tattooed to Olaf’s ankle.  I don’t mind the idea that much.  This should allow the TV writers to keep a consistent tone in the television series instead of making a shift after The Austere Academy.  

Unfortunately, it wasn’t executed well in the first two episodes.  In “Part 2,” we meet a volunteer named Jacqueline who works as Mr. Poe’s secretary.  She tries to stop Olaf from adopting the children, gets captured by the troupe, escapes with some help from fellow volunteer Gustav, and then…not much else.  They attend The Marvelous Marriage to keep an eye on Olaf, but this has no impact on the plot.  The Baudelaires still have to rescue themselves and Olaf still escapes.  Although they do inform the Baudelaires that they’re supposed to go live with Uncle Monty instead of Olaf, that’s something Mr. Poe could have told them.  I want to like Jacqueline and it was nice to actually see Gustav, but there’s just no point to them being there.  It made the scene a bit awkward, at least for me.

Finally, there’s a positive change that must be noted: the increased diversity in the cast, especially compared to the movie.  The Poe family, the hook-handed man, Uncle Monty, and Aunt Josephine are all played by people of color.  There’s also a visible amount of people of color in the backgrounds, particularly in the audience for The Marvelous Marriage.  That’s awesome and I hope it continues into the next season.

So, while definitely not perfect, the first two episodes of the Netflix series made an okay first impression with me.  But as we Snicket fans all know, first impressions can be entirely incorrect.

Will the subsequent episodes change my opinion of the series overall?

“You haven’t the faintest idea…”