Fast-forward to 2017, where the series has been given a second-chance at life on Netflix. Promising to remain more faithful to the books, the show, fittingly titled A Series of Unfortunate Events, has been scheduled to be released in instalments, with each book being chopped up into two, hour-long episodes. So far, only the first four books, or eight episodes, are available for streaming, although judging by the enormously-positive response from both critics and fans it appears as though more episodes are on their way. It’d seem as though the show is the superior offering, but is the movie suddenly invalid? I already know which I prefer, but I’ve decided to revisit and examine both adaptations.
I want to put two disclaimers out there: one, this comparison will only look at Episodes 1-6 of the show. The reason is because the movie only covered the first three books, and that’s roughly a fair conversion. And two, and I can’t stress this enough, there’ll be spoilers. I don’t want to ruin anything intentionally, but it’s, unfortunately, necessary.
Anyway, let’s get started with…
The premise of A Series of Unfortunate Events is as simple as it can get. Three bright children, named Violet, Klaus and Sunny, are on a beach one day when a man named Mr. Poe tells them their parents died in a fire that consumed their house. The children are sent to live with a distant relative named Count Olaf, a greedy, miserable man with a knack for the theatrical and desire to get his hands on said children’s inheritance. Initially he puts on a “play” where he marries Violet, but when the kids foil his plan he runs away and vows revenge. The remainder of the story, repetition and all, is the children being pawned off to several relatives, discovering Olaf in disguise, not being able to convince the other adults that it’s really him, Olaf finally being found out and fleeing, rinse and repeat. From what I’ve gathered, the children do eventually get the happy ending they deserve, but not for 13 long books, all of which are narrated by a mysterious man named Lemony Snicket.
Both adaptations had the arduous task of adapting these books as faithfully as possible. With the movie, only the first three were adapted, aka The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window, into a 98-minute film. This’d seem like a recipe for disaster, but it actually turns in a half-decent end product. The film tells a pretty contained and decent story, the books almost signifying the transitions between acts. Even the changes from the books, which there are a few, feel welcome and necessary…for the most part (more on that shortly.) It’s a pretty tidy and well-edited film, and I’d even consider it to be underrated upon rewatch.
Unfortunately, it’s not an entirely clean adaptation. It mostly flows like a movie, and the changes are mostly welcomed, but the structure is lopsided. Ignoring obvious nitpicks, the decision to cut the first book in half and use it as bookends ruins the entire purpose behind the series: that adults are often oblivious to the evil in front of them. It’s repetitive, but Count Olaf being unmasked at the last second and getting away is purposeful. Daniel Handler, who wrote the books, was clearly making a statement about trusting children, so cutting out the basic formula, only to then force-feed the message in the finale, is awkward. Really, really awkward.
On top of that, the denouement doesn’t work. I get that they were trying to console the audience, and seeing Olaf endure what the three protagonists went through is incredibly satisfying, but it also assumes the story is over. And yet, the next scene has a subtle inference that a sequel film was in the works. So having that conclusion play out the way it does, though admirable, feels cheap. Understandable, but still cheap.
The Netflix series doesn’t have that problem. Because of the format, with each book playing out over two episodes, there’s more room for faithful adaptation. Every book gets an appropriate amount of time in the spotlight, and every line that needs to be there ends up in there without fail. Unfortunately, this also leaves a lot of room for padding, as well as some of the most on-the-nose writing ever. Seriously, you thought Christopher Nolan or the Wachowskis lacked subtlety? This easily has them beat.
There’s also the additional problem of unneeded pop-culture references that’ll date the adaptation in a few years. Handler wrote the books to be vague in their time period, and it mostly plays out that way, but every-so-often there’ll be a reference to Uber taxis or the internet. And it doesn't fit. The movie may have had a reference to Aflac, but that was more subtly-integrated. In the show, these references are as forced as the writing is blunt, making them stick out like a sore thumb.
A lot of the key ideas and expository moments are also spoon-fed to the audience. For example, during the climax of the second episode, aka the wedding, the narrator, Lemony Snicket, explains a legal term to the audience in an attempt to highlight the effectiveness of Klaus’s argument. The term is then repeated in-show by Justice Strauss to the audience members of the play. There’s blunt, and then there’s repetitive, and that fits into the latter category.
As a final complaint about the Netflix series, it occasionally devolves into fan-fiction. There’s a subplot involving a conspiracy that may or may not involve the protagonist’s parents, showing that they survived the fire at the end of the first episode. It’s all fun and dandy, but it clashes with the grim tone of the story. The movie had a bit of this too, but it wasn’t distracting like it is here. It was rather downplayed, being more of a side-note.
Ultimately, this boils down to preference: do you take the subtle writing of the film, or the blunt writing of the show? The choppy structure of the film, or the faithfulness of the show? Personally, and this is going against my better judgement, I’m gonna go with the show. Yes, it’s as subtle as a brick to the head, drags out its episodes for time and has a weird subplot that occasionally dominates. But it also feels complete, which the movie never did. In other words, the show wins.
But stories are useless without characters, which leads to…
…Or I would say that, had it not been for one sore spot in the film. Let’s discuss the elephant in the room: Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. To be fair, Carrey’s not a bad dramatic actor. I’ve seen him do wonders in films like The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I also think his portrayal as Count Olaf, though deviating from the source material, is entertaining, and he wasn’t a bad choice for the role in theory. Unfortunately, his direction sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure how much input he really had, but much of his performance involves mugging and making uncomfortable faces when not called for. It draws you out of the film, and I prefer Neil Patrick Harris’s more subdued and nuanced performance in the show.
The rest of the cast in the film and the show are pretty solid. Timothy Spall plays Mr. Poe in the film, while he’s given life by K. Todd Freeman in the show. Both are different takes on the same character, yet Spall’s take is largely underplayed and kept to the sidelines. He keeps the role minimal, where as Freeman overplays his naïveté to the point of obnoxiousness. It really is a toss-up, but because Freeman looks to be having more fun I prefer him.
Then there are Dr. Montgomery and Aunt Josephine, both of whom become victims of Olaf’s schemes in their respective stories. Aasif Mandvi and Alfre Woodard do hold their own compared to Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep respectively, although Woodard has the handicap of reinterpreting a character previously played by Streep (aka, one of the greatest actresses to ever live.)
Another notable difference is Lemony Snicket. In the film, he’s kept to silhouettes and voiced by Jude Law, which is distracting because, well, it’s Jude Law, and it’s hard not to notice that throughout the film. In contrast, the show gives the role to Patrick Warburton, who often steals the spotlight. He’s also distracting, but the show dedicates more time to him so it’s easier to adjust. Neither actor is ideal, but I’m gonna have to side with Warburton.
The protagonists in both adaptations are pretty much on-par…with one glaring exception. I don’t mind that Klaus in the film doesn’t wear glasses unless he’s reading a book, because that’s nitpicking. No, what bothers me about the film’s leads is that they sound too old. This is especially apparent with Liam Aiken, who was already a teenager and had to fight with his voice beginning to crack. I know it’s petty to complain about that, as some males reach puberty early, but it’s distracting to hear a teenager’s voice come out of a pre-teen’s body. Of course, Emily Browning and Kara/Shelby Hoffman are also too old for their roles as Violet and Sunny respectively, but it’s most glaring with Aiken’s Klaus. I much prefer Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith/Tara Strong as Violet, Klaus and Sunny.
There are more side-characters I could discuss in both adaptations, like how Mr. Poe has an assistant in the movie who barely says anything, or how Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders keep resurfacing as the parents in the show, but the tipping point is Count Olaf’s cronies. In the film, they were side-characters that barely got to do anything. Even the video game adaptation gave them more to do than the film! The show, on the other hand, allowed time to flesh their personalities out, and it’s clear that all five of them are having fun: there’s the minion with clawed hands who’s kinda stupid, the gender-bent minion who sounds bored, the minion who looks like Igor and is a softie and the twins who finish each other’s sentences. If all else, they’re worth watching the Netflix show for.
It was close, but the Netflix adaptation wins once again.
But characters are only as interesting as the material they have to work with, ergo…
The film, as I said above, condenses the first three books into 98-minutes. This leads to the downside of feeling rushed, but it also avoids the unneeded filler that the show is guilty of at times. The film is also incredibly economical, with not a single second wasted on details that don’t serve the story (save Carrey’s mugging, but that’s a minor flaw.) It also knows how to use the medium of film as a strength, with details like KIaus's memory banks taking on books being pulled from library shelves. I like subtle details like that, as they don’t bog down the story.
The problem, like I said before, is in the structure. It’s paced quite well, mind you, but it also feels choppy and unfocused. Remember how I mentioned that the first book was chopped in half? Well, it keeps the wedding section for the finale and includes a train sequence in the first-act. Which’d be fine, it’s a suspenseful sequence, but it comes out nowhere and ends on Mr. Poe taking the protagonists from Count Olaf because “Sunny was driving the car on the train tracks”. I know Mr. Poe’s supposed to be a dolt, but there’s a line that gets crossed there.
The movie also has cuts and jumps in story logic in order to keep the intended rating. These include not showing Dr. Montgomery’s death, not directly showing Klaus get slapped by Count Olaf, not showing Aunt Josephine fake her death and not showing Aunt Josephine actually die at the hands of the Lachrymose leeches. I know the movie made those decisions because parents would have the studio execs’s heads on nooses, but they’re missed opportunities that could’ve strengthened the film’s resolve. Add in that the climax of the film, the wedding, ends on a cop-out, and you’re left with a film that doesn’t live up to its full-potential.
Which isn’t to say the show is perfect. Despite containing the same, gothic atmosphere of the film, it also divulges into spy genre fan-fiction from-time-to-time. I like this schlocky material, but it robs the show of some of its schadenfreude knowing there are adults on the protagonists’ side in the quest to defeat Count Olaf. Add in one too many convenient contrivances, like how the father and mother happened to be peering down at the kids’ boat with binoculars when they needed it the most, and you get pulled from the experience a few too many times.
Additionally, the show’s directing can feel a little over-choreographed. I think the best example is when Aunt Josephine’s house is destroyed by Hurricane Herman: in the film, the sequence felt natural and terrifying. Sure, three of Aunt Josephine’s irrational fears, the fridge falling flat, the oven starting up for no reason and the doorknob bursting into a thousand pieces, happen for no reason, and it’s dumb beyond belief, but the destruction was believable. The show, however, was the exact-opposite, with the house teetering back-and-forth like a see-saw and the kids never looking like they’re in any immediate danger. I know they’re surrounded by plot-armour, but it stopped being palatable when Sonnenfeld began channeling Wes Anderson.
Still, for all of its problems, the show does compensate by being less-rushed for time than the movie. I don’t think either adaptation is ideal here, so I’ll call it a tie.
But let’s not lose hope, as we still have to talk about the…
I can’t say that for the show. Sure, James Newton-Howard’s no slouch, and his opening jingle (which sets up the episode’s plot) and end credits tunes are fun enough, but the remainder of the tracks aren’t so memorable. They’re not terrible, but the odds of you remembering them are pretty slim compared to Newman’s score. I also wasn’t paying much attention to them, in part because the show didn’t want me to. In short, it’s pretty obvious that the film has the better score.
Now for the final category…
When I initially set out to write this, my underlying goal was to do both adaptations justice. That’s something that the internet hasn’t done, with the film being judged unfavourably by book enthusiasts. It’s developed a cult-following over the years, no doubt due to its quirkiness, but even as a teenager I felt a charm that no one in my cohort was willing to acknowledge. You had to trudge through its flustered structure and Jim Carrey’s mugging, but everything else was pretty solid. I’d dare say that it even holds up on re-watch.
That said, the Netflix show is also really solid. It’s not a masterpiece, I don’t think this kind of material would lend itself to “masterpiece status” anyway, but its strengths are numerous: it’s well-acted once you get past the dialogue. The casting choices are spot-on. It’s decently scored. The set design, save occasionally goofy CGI, is pitch-perfect. It’s clear everyone involved cared about adapting the books right, and it shows through the attention to detail. True, it suffers from being half-overly-literal-adaptation and half-bloated-fan-fiction, but the two halves come together for an entertaining whole.
I’m not sure what else to say. The film may have lost in every category save Sound, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. This is the trap that my last comparison piece, the two shows surrounding the Clone Wars era of Star Wars, fell into: there’s a clear winner, and it’s pretty obvious to someone who’s seen both. But the lesser work shouldn’t be discounted, and the superior work isn’t always the easier one to sit through. This is definitely the case with A Series of Unfortunate Events, as, despite the Netflix series being better, it’s also not as breezy as the 2004 film.
Still, I have to stick to my guns. The Netflix series beat the film in 2 of the 5 categories so far, and not without reasonable cause. It’s flawed, but it’s also much better-constructed. All the gears mesh together, something the movie can’t boast. So while neither adaptation is “ideal”, I’ll hedge my bets on the Netflix series. Especially given the timeliness with current events.
The Netflix series wins. If only the show weren’t being released in instalments…
Another comparison done! Thanks for sticking it out, and I’ll see you next time!