It’s hard to tell who wants to ban Lemony Snicket more – the religious right in schools in Texas and Georgia or the writer behind the cult series for kids himself. In 2006, both US States placed the 13-book sequence in “restricted use” – ie children couldn’t check them out of school libraries. The author, however, was way ahead. Since 1999 the books have carried his version of warnings you’d see on a bottle of poison: “I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant… there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once.”
Daniel Handler – the 36-year-old novelist who writes, and sometimes gives interviews, in character as Snicket – is, of course, joking. His series follows the misadventures of the mechanically minded Violet, her brother Klaus and Sunny, a baby with sharp teeth. After their parents are consumed in a house fire, the children are adopted by a villainous relative, Count Olaf, who intends to liberate them from their inheritance. His attempts to do so, and their efforts to escape, topped bestseller charts around the world across the first ten years of the century.
This success is a happy accident. Handler was trying to make it as a novelist in 1999, working on what he thought was a mock gothic novel for adults. “The problem is it’s almost impossible to make a gothic novel involving innocence and helplessness work for adults.”
His first proper adult novel, Basic Eight, fell into the hands of an editor at children’s publisher Scholastic. She asked Handler if he had any kids ideas.
“I agreed to meet her in a bar because I assumed she’d say it was a terrible idea, but it would be less awkward if we had a drink in our hands,” he recalls. “I told her the story of the children going through all these terrible things, expecting she would hate it.”
He thought she’d call the next day saying she’d sobered up. Instead, she offered him a deal. A smart decision. The books have been translated into 41 languages and Snicket has sold more than 65m books worldwide – netting Handler an estimated $3m. Although details of the Netflix/Snicket deal haven’t been made public, the show is the most expensive they’ve yet produced, because it’s so heavy on prosthetics and special effects.
There’s already been a movie, with Jim Carrey as Olaf. It truncated the first book to the outrage of fans. Handler reportedly wrote eight drafts of the screenplay before being replaced by Galaxy Quest screenwriter Robert Gordon. “I thought it was horrendous,” Handler deadpans and it’s initially hard to tell if he’s joking. Then he adds: “In fact, if you rent it, you can hear my audio commentary, which is mostly weeping and complaining…” And you guess that, yes, he probably is.
Jim Carrey as Count Olaf
This time around, Handler wrote the scripts himself. He insists he tried to persuade the cast (including Joan Cusack as the kindly Justice Strauss, K Todd Freeman and Neil Patrick Harris) to avoid the show. “Perhaps Joan Cusack wishes to end her own career or perhaps she doesn’t believe people who call her anonymously in the middle of the night,” he sighs. “Aunt Josephine is played by Alfre Woodard, a stupendous actress who, I can only assume, is throwing it all away due to having lost a bet.”
This gloomy yet witty pessimism makes Snicket a beautifully gothic narrator – but Handler admits it doesn’t work for everyone. His favourite test is to offer a small child a plate of cookies, adding, “But one of those cookies is poisoned. We have no idea which one.” Some are alarmed, some delighted. The latter are the potential Snicket readers.
Snicket has a new book of horrendous things out this year, while Handler, writing under his own name, has his seventh adult book All the Dirty Parts (“It’s just been prematurely described as an alarmingly filthy novel”) around the same time. Netflix is eyeing all of them.
“Each Unfortunate Events book is being allocated two hours of alleged entertainment,” sighs Handler, channeling the spirit of Snicket. “There’s a second season being pecked at now and a third, supposedly. So it’s really not safe to watch TV for three or four years. More if they film any more of my books. Just think of what you’ll get done instead of watching TV. Your cabinets will be sparkling. Your garden will be lush. You’ll meet new friends and lose old ones. What’s not to like?”
A Series of Unfortunate Events comes out on Netflix today, 13th January