From its opening moments, when star Neil Patrick Harris (playing the villainous Count Olaf) croons for the audience to “Look away, look away,” (below) it’s clear that this is a different sort of Netflix series.
In fact, the entire marketing campaign for A Series of Unfortunate Events has been based around telling its audience to avoid this adaptation of the bestselling children’s books, which bursts onto the streaming service this week with 8 episodes that (mostly) succeed at bringing the property to life. Hopefully, people weren’t genuinely put off.
First and foremost, this is a fantastically faithful adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s alliteratively-titled novels (actually written by Daniel Handler under a pen name). Unlike the 2004 feature film adaptation, which crammed three novels into a 1hr 40 minute runtime, this version of the story (coming to you 13 years later, natch) takes its time, adapting each novel into two hour-long (ish) episodes that leaves room for all the narration, esoterica and mystery that made the original books so compelling.
Really, if anything the new series only builds on the original stories’ lore, which slowly evolved over thirteen books from the story of three orphans (Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, played by Malina Weissman, Lous Hynes and a sometimes-CGI Presley Smith) chased by their disguised evil relative Count Olaf into a sprawling tale of secret organisations, long-standing feuds and three very evocative initials.
By contrast, this series begins worldbuilding earlier on, weaving clues and mysterious codes into the main narrative in subtle ways that will delight fans of the books and may reward newcomers on a re-watch (with a few key changes to the mythos that we won’t spoil here).
The unusual tone of the novels, which was part-dictionary, part-fairytale and part-catalogue of misery, is also well recaptured, though as with the 2004 film the part of Count Olaf is slightly hammed up to become a more ridiculous, comedic character (most of the time Neil Patrick Harris is basically just playing a version of his How I Met Your Mother character Barney Stinson, which gives scenes where he engages in genuinely abusive behaviour an odd sheen).
So overall, it’s a great recreation of what makes the books work so well – but whether that works QUITE so well on screen may be more up for debate. The languid pace of the novels can sometimes seem to drag on screen, while their more engaging on-page eccentricities – most prominently “author” Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) explaining the definitions of words and bemoaning his own tortured past – are also slightly pace-sapping, overly expositional and repetitive.
The series also suffers from some oddly-pitched performances, perhaps due to heavily stylised dialogue that scans better on the page coming off oddly sing-song and false from the mouths of veteran actors like Joan Cusack and Alfre Woodard (playing two adult allies of the children). Sometimes, the end result feels a bit more CBBC in-house drama than blockbuster Netflix series, right down to the bizarrely awful CGI used to animate youngest child Sunny and various animals in key scenes.
So like the lives of the Baudelaire orphans themselves, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Still, it’s an entertaining enough watch (if not quite as binge-worthy as some of Netflix’s offerings) and well worth a chance if only for its appealing, unusual style. At least to begin with, it’d be a mistake to “look away” from this one.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events in available on Netflix from Friday 13th January