There was a time when childrens’ literature was written to be cheerful, “moral and uplifting,” and stuff like that there. Case in point: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Figure 1), by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1902), that managed to become extremely popular even before Rebecca was played by cute little Shirley Temple. Ghu knows why, because I couldn’t even finish the book. It’s too full of early 20th-century attitudes. For example (text courtesy of the Gutenberg Project) “It was traveling, mother,” said the child eagerly and willfully. “It was leaving the farm, and putting up lunch in a basket, and a little riding and a little steam cars, and we carried our nightgowns.” “Don’t tell the whole village about it, if we did,” said the mother, interrupting the reminiscences of this experienced voyager. “Haven’t I told you before,” she whispered, in a last attempt at discipline, “that you shouldn’t talk about night gowns and stockings and— things like that, in a loud tone of voice, and especially when there’s men folks round?” Well, you get the picture. Anyway, in the last decade or two, adults are beginning to realize that children are people too (maybe with a bit less experience in the world) and, especially when reading, enjoy a little bit of shock treatment? You and I like stuff like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Dr. Demento, and Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, so why shouldn’t children? Heaven knows that when I was their age (“What do you mean? We’re all different ages,” Violet Baudelaire said….) I loved similar stuff—monster movies, and Mad Magazine, and science fiction and fantasy. Well, children are now allowed to be disturbed and frightened and tickled by oddball books, like Captain Underpants, and Everyone Poops and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events!
Now for those of you who’ve spent the years since 2000 living like troglodytes (a phrase which here means “in a cave”*), the latter is a series of 13 very slim books in the genre which used to be called “kidlit,” or “childrens’ books,” but which is now abbreviated to YA, or Young Adult. According to Wikipedia, the series has sold more than 65 million copies and has been translated into 14 languages. Let’s see, if he earned a dime for each book, that would be… um, carry the one… a boatload of money! But writing’s not about money (usually), it’s about either message or entertainment—and in rare cases, both. Lemony Snicket is, of course, a pseudonym in keeping with the somewhat gothic and/or florid language used sometimes in the books—the author’s real name is Daniel Handler. Very briefly, the books concern the three Baudelaire children: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny; their parents die in a mysterious fire. The children are given over, by an incompetent bank official, Mr. Poe, to the custody of a murderous relative, Count Olaf; who, with the help of several helpers (or minions), attempts to steal their inheritance, and who disposes of a succession of more genial relatives who gain custody of the hapless orphans. The series is narrated by the pseudonymous Snicket, who writes a different dedication to each work—to his late love, Beatrice—and who keeps attempting to dissuade the reader from continuing the story. In this week’s column, I will review the first season of the Netflix version of this saga, book by book (there are two episodes of the series per book, and four books in the first season). Because it’s been a few years since I’ve read the books, I will here review only the Netflix series—although the series follows the books quite well, there are a number of divergences I won’t point out here. The reviews will be “unfortunate” not, as might be assumed, because they are bad reviews—at least I hope they won’t be—but because in reviewing each episode, I will be forced to give ***SPOILERS*** in order to continue reviewing. Hence, A Series of Unfortunate Reviews.
In 2004, a movie was released based on the books—or at least the first three. I’ve kind of blanked it out, because it didn’t fulfill my expectations. The books are full of dark humour, and (as I said before) kind of Gothic language—though Snicket (I’ll call Mr. Handler that from now on to avoid confusion) makes every attempt to keep the language more or less simple enough that younger readers can understand it—when a possibly unfamiliar word is used (as in the example I wrote above with the asterisk), the writer says something like “a word/phrase which here means…” to give the impression that the writer knows the reader already knows the meaning of the word. I like that, because Snicket is not talking down to the reader. Another way he keeps younger readers apprised of meanings is to have one character tell the Baudelaire children “that word means so-and-so,” whereupon one of the children says “we already knew that,” when in fact, the reader may not have known that at all. Very cleverly managed, in my opinion. The humour is dark, the plot is complex in a way that children can follow it; but the movie’s tone was much lighter and, in fact, didn’t really reflect the books despite following the writing quite well. Jim Carrey played Count Olaf; Jude Law played the narrator, Lemony Snicket; and Meryl Streep played the children’s fearful Aunt Josephine. The movie was not a success, but did spark further interest in the books which, when all was said and done, were much better.
So to begin the first review: This series of books will be three seasons on Netflix (another Netflix original); the first comprises the first four of the thirteen books. Book 1 (Episodes 1 & 2) is entitled The Bad Beginning, and recounts how the three Baudelaire children—Violet (14), the inventor; Klaus (12), the reader/rememberer; and Sunny (the baby), biter and chewer—are sent to Briny Beach on a rickety trolley by their parents; while there, they are met by banker Mr. Poe, who tells them that their parents have died in a fire, which consumed their whole house. They will be sent to their nearest relative, Count Olaf, who will assume their guardianship. While the book, starting with the preface, entreats the reader to stop reading, to find some other method of passing the time, the Netflix series begins with a title sequence whose soundtrack croons “Look away, look away” (Appendix 1). We next see a man (Patrick Warburton) who tells us he is Lemony Snicket, and implores us not to continue watching. In fact, the series manages to hold the tone of the books extremely well—which is not surprising, as the majority of the first-season episodes were written by Daniel Handler himself! We also see Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Poe, and Joan Cusack as Justice Strauss. (The other recurring characters include Malina Weissman as Violet, Louis Hynes as Klaus, and Presley Smith as Sunny. (I don’t know if Presley is a boy or a girl—and here it doesn’t really matter—because the child is a delight to watch!) The henchmen are played by Usman Ally, Matty Cardarople, Jacqueline and Joyce Robbins, John DeSantis, Luke Camilleri, Sara Canning, and Cleo King; the parents are played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders, and other roles by Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Aasif Mandvi, Patrick Breen and Catherine O’Hara.
The Bad Beginning recounts how the children are sent to their “nearest” relative because Count Olaf (a “bad actor” by all meanings of the phrase) in disguise as a “consultant,” convinces Mr. Poe, the executor of the Baudelaire will, that “nearest” means “physically nearest.” Upon arriving, the children are sent to a mean, dirty room with only one bed (“…and a complimentary pile of rocks!”), then put to work cleaning, cooking, scrubbing, weeding, and chopping wood. Count Olaf determines to have the Baudelaire fortune, which can only be obtained when Violet reaches the “age of majority” (i.e., 18), and thinks up a scheme involving marriage via a bogus play put on by him and his “troupe” (actually, his henchpersons) and a real marriage certificate and a stage-stricken Justice Strauss. Eventually, the Baudelaire children manage to escape Count Olaf’s clutches—at least momentarily—and the Count and his henchminions escape the long arm of the law. And the parents—we assume here that these are the Baudelaire parents—escape from captivity in Peru and commandeer an airplane to bring them back to the mainland.
In Book 2, The Reptile Room, the children are sent to live with their Uncle Monty Montgomery (Aasif Mandvi), who is a world-renowned herpetologist. It seems as if things are finally looking up for the orphans, as they are welcomed by their uncle with open arms; they begin making themselves at home until a mysterious person appears at the door. The uncle’s assistant having vanished, the new person introduces himself as Stephano—and we and the children can clearly see it’s another bad disguise; the Count himself has returned. In the Reptile Room, a number of curious scenes are acted out—including a couple with the world’s deadliest viper—and, before we know it, the children are shuffled off to a new relative, Uncle Monty no longer being able to handle that duty. Again, Mr. Poe fails to see that Count Olaf has returned, and dismisses the children’s concerns until it is too late—but the Count is eventually unmasked and escapes via Uncle Monty’s hedge maze.
Book 3: The Wide Window takes us to meet the children’s Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard), who used to be a daring pilot, daredevil, fearless person—but who now is practically afraid of her own shadow. She eats cold food, because she’s afraid to turn the stove on (“It might burst into flames!”); she keeps the telephone under a glass dome because it might electrocute her; she won’t touch a doorknob lest it explode; and yet her house perches delicately on the edge of an abyss (figuratively), a hundred feet above the Lachrymose Lake. Some years before, her husband Ike had been eaten by the Lachrymose Leeches, and ever since, Aunt Josephine had been afraid of everything. Ever since the ferry had dropped the Baudelaire orphans on Damocles Dock, they had been hearing about an approaching hurricane, even though hurricanes were not supposed to happen on lakes—but Lachrymose Lake was so big it could have one; they apprised Aunt Josephine about the approaching storm (she didn’t listen to the radio for fear of electrocution), and she decided to go to town to pick up supplies in case of a power outage. Even though most of the town was away (it was the off-season) there were plenty of sellers of limes, fish heads, parsley and other necessities of life. (In fact, this gave the director a chance to give Daniel Handler (Figure 7) one of his two cameos in the series—he played a fish head monger—“Fish heads! Fish heads! Roly-poly fish heads!”—and if you don’t get that one, you’ve never heard the song by Barnes & Barnes (actually, one of the “Barneses” was Bill Mumy, who is well-known to Twilight Zone and Lost In Space fans. But I digress). She returns to the house with someone new—a one-eyed sailor named “Sham.” Sham the Sailor, meeting Josephine for the first time on the dock, seems to have only one leg—coincidentally, the wooden one is the leg that can be identified as Count Olaf’s by the “eye” tattoo on his ankle. But with no ankle, there can be no way to tell if this is Count Olaf in disguise, is there? There is a confrontation between Aunt Josephine and Sham, and Aunt Josephine appears to have jumped out the picture window (the eponymous “Wide Window” that looks out over the lake from a 100-foot drop) and has left the children in Sailor Sham’s care via a suicide note. The children manage to escape Sham and his henchpeople; they steal/borrow a rowboat and head out across Lachrymose Lake in a hurricane. Eventually, they escape Sham—who is finally unmasked to Poe’s satisfaction, though he loses both Count Olaf and the children—and they head to the Finite Forest to escape!
I don’t know whether all the narration and gloom will be as fun for first-time viewers who haven’t read the books; but my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, hasn’t read the books, and she’s been enjoying the series right along with me. So I hope you, too, if you’re a newcomer to Snicket’s work, will enjoy it as much as we have. Finally, we come to Book Four, The Miserable Mill. When the children arrive (hitchhiking; they sneaked onto a pickup truck carrying boxes of gum, but were thrown off as freeloaders before they reached their destination) at Paltryville (which they’d learned about from a photo they rescued just before Aunt Josephine’s house—you guessed this, right?—was destroyed in the hurricane, and which showed their parents and aunts/uncles in front of Paltryville and the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill); they found Paltryville had been destroyed in a fire, which their parents were accused of having set. Furthermore, they were sent to not just live in the mill, but to work there! The mill was run by partners Clark and Sir (Don Johnson), and the workers were not paid in money, but in money-off coupons. When Klaus’s spectacles are broken by the new foreman (who is, for a change, not Count Olaf), he is sent to the optometrist (Catherine O’Hara), who is a former lover of the Count’s. The Count renews their acquaintance—she was as evil as he—and he, disguised as her female assistance, wreak their vile will on the hapless Klaus while he is in their clutches. Further, deponent sayeth not, as the saying goes; I’ll let you discover all that transpired during this episode. Just sign into your Netflix account and watch the season! Rating, four thingamahoosies: ¤¤¤¤.
Appendix 1: Here is the theme song. Where I’ve put “verse 1,” “verse 2” etc., there is substituted a verse which refers to that particular episode.
Look away, look away
Look away, look away
This show will wreck your evening
Your whole life and your day
Every single episode is nothing but dismay
So look away, look away, look away
Three children lose their home
And go to live with someone awful.
He tries to steal their fortune
With a plot that’s not quite lawful.
It’s hard to fathom how the orphans
Managed to live through it
But how a decent person like yourself would even want to view it
Just look away, look away…
There’s nothing but horror and inconvenience on the way
Ask any stable person “Should I watch?” and they will say
“Look away, look away, look away, look away
Look away, look away, look away, look away,
The Baudelaires are living with a man who who studies snakes
He’s jolly and he’s secretive and makes a few mistakes
Spoiler alert a villain comes to steal and murder
So if I were you I wouldn’t watch one minute further!
The Baudelaires’ new guardian is wracked with fear and panic
They end up on a boat that may as well be the Titanic
We polled a bunch of adults; ninety-nine percent agree
There must be something happier onscreen for you to see!
The lumber mill is where the Baudelaires are forced to work—
The eye doctor is sinister, the owner is a jerk.
They end up in a fiendish plot with logs and hypnotism
The very thought of watching should be met with scepticism
Comments on this week’s column are welcome. You can comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I welcome all comments, corrections and/or discussion about my columns. And please don’t feel you have to agree with me to comment—my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!