Today’s comparison, dear reader, will be a rumination on nostalgia, a word which here means: a 20-something with ennui immersing themselves in the warm fuzzy feeling of being a gifted child.
I first read the A Series of Unfortunate Events books when I was 7, saw the film when I was 9, and watched the Netflix series when I was 19. My consumption of the story in all its different mediums has moved with my age. So in this edition of ’Page or Screen?’ we will be comparing across three different iterations. *Gasp*
Let’s start at the source…
The first in the series, A Bad Beginning, was published in 1999 by Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket. The series follows the three Baudelaire orphans after their parents and home perish in a mysterious fire; as they are consequently moved from guardian to guardian, the evil Count Olaf attempts to execute evermore ridiculous schemes in order to obtain their vast fortune.
The series is beautifully illustrated by Brett Helquist, with a meta narrative weaved in the dedications and a satisfying overall plot arc that encompasses each individual story. I always found, with the book in particular, that Snicket’s writing quirk of defining a word or phrase always made me feel smart because: A) I already knew the word and could feel smug; or B) I learnt something. Reading as a child, it felt relatable. Adults are often incomprehensible at times, and in the series adults can be absurd caricatures.
Admittedly, when revisiting the books as an adult, the children can be a little obnoxious (which is the case across all mediums), but can you honestly say that having encountered intelligent kids they aren’t always a little annoying?
Released in 2004 and starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, the film is the odd duck of the bunch, and it’s difficult to point to why. The cast is star-studded, with Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly to name just a few. There were even uncredited cameos from Dustin Hoffman and Jane Lynch. The aesthetic is very similar to the book illustrations. It won an Oscar for goodness sake (for real, look it up.)
The film just lacks… That’s the best way I can describe it. There isn’t a loving dedication to detail which is present in the Netflix adaptation. The performances are fine, the visuals are fine, the story adaptation is fine. Nothing more, nothing less.
However, if this had been my first introduction to the series, I can guarantee I wouldn’t have ventured any further, which is the key issue: it feels generic, whereas the book series and Netflix show feel one of a kind. One possible key reason why this film misses the mark is that it is the only one of the three versions that did not have Handler involved somehow in the process, which I think accounts for the lack of getting the series’ ‘vibe.’
The Netflix Series
When I tell you I was excited for this, it would be an understatement. From the beginning, a wonderful promotional move was made by uploading a video trailer to YouTube under the account Eleanora Poe (a reference to the editor of the ‘Daily Punctilio’ of the novel), filled with leeches, puttanesca and fires. This was a trailer made by a group who knew the vibe of the novel, the odd details and mysteries, which were so sorely lacking from the film.
The finished product is just as pitch perfect. In the corners of almost every frame there is a nod or hint to an ‘in’ aspect of the novel. Every plot point is fleshed out, the casting is sublime and its pacing is perfect. One aspect of the series that makes this adaptation particularly glow is the phenomenal Lucy Punch, who plays the camp and iconic Esmé Gigi Genevieve Squalor. I love this series so much I am not ashamed to say that I consistently cry at the final episode, which I obviously shan’t spoil for you, but is so touchingly acted and executed for something so often comical.
Overall, if you have never consumed any of the ‘unfortunate events’, and if you like your childhood properties created by a less problematic writer than that of ‘the boy who lived’, settle in with the book series (which if you are one for audiobooks, this one is narrated by TIM CURRY. Need I say more!)
Both the book and Netflix series work with the strengths of their medium, which is the benefit of adaptation. The books use word definition and dedications to add an extra layer of charm to the series that I have never really seen replicated anywhere else. The Netflix show includes many winks and nods to the fourth wall through jokes about streaming platforms. The film tries to cram three books into one hour and 40-ish minutes, which actively works against the medium, making it feel rushed.
In addition, the book is camp macabre to me, like Elvira or Vincent Price, full of darkly comic scenarios and genuinely dark plot elements, like attempted decapitation or a baby in a cage. The book created this tone balance, which I think is where the film struggles. Count Olaf is silly, narcissistic, and deluded but still scary – he will kill these children. In the film, Carey doesn’t hit the right note, not camp enough to be Neil Patrick Harris’ charismatic extra Olaf, but not scary enough to be his own. They didn’t go for it enough in either direction.
To conclude the ‘Page or Screen?’ debate, I must wholeheartedly and controversially pick the Netflix adaptation. It captures everything that’s unique and consuming about the book series, without as many word definitions (something that can be irksome to older readers).
BONUS FUN FACT: Catherine O’Hara is the only actor to be in both the 2004 film and the Netflix adaptation, as Justice Strauss and Dr. Orwell, respectively. The more you know!
If you want more from MancMuse, why not check out another ‘Page or Screen?’ comparison, this time for Y: The Last Man.
Thanks for reading my rambling profession of love for a niche series, if you enjoyed the read why not throw us a quid on Ko-fi: ko-fi.com/annagho