A Series of Unfortunate Events Captures Lemony Snicket’s Macabre Aesthetic
The world of Lemon Snicket is a strange. Over the course of thirteen books, it tells a story full of murder and betrayal, kidnapping and deception, poisonous vipers and deadly leeches. At the center of this ordeal is the most tragic misfortune one can suffer, the death of two parents in a horrific house fire that sets off the series of unfortunate events that befall Baudelaire’s orphans. And this is all childish stuff, let’s not forget, even despite Snicket’s warnings that no sane person should want to do anything about it. However, beyond the show’s outlandish presentation that mixes enough dark comedy and witty puns to make Wes Anderson jealous, Daniel Handler is able to create a story perfectly suited to a younger audience. Its themes of transition from childhood to adulthood teach a valuable lesson to its readers, and it’s refreshing to see a children’s series that treats its audience with the maturity they deserve.
The series has recently had a revival thanks to the excellent A series of unfortunate events show that ran for three seasons on Netflix. The television format has proven extremely beneficial when translating so much plot from one medium to another, and the strength of the writing and performance (particularly of Neil Patrick Harris like the sinister Count Olaf) made it a hit with critics and audiences alike. Marc Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld did some of the best work of their career on the show but, in what has to be one of the weirdest criticisms ever leveled at a piece of art, they almost did too good a job. The success of the series has made any other adaptation pale in comparison, most notably the 2004 feature version, the aptly titled (and incredibly underrated) Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Although it was forced to condense much of the source material to keep things in a reasonable time frame, the film still largely adheres to the plot of the first three novels. Following the mysterious death of their parents, the Baudelaire orphans consisting of Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken), and sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) find themselves guided from one guardian to another, while trying to avoid the clutches of the infamous Count Olaf (jim carrey) and his schemes to obtain their family fortune. Due to the very nature of being a movie, it would have been impossible to squeeze three storybooks into a two-hour span without sacrificing the idiosyncratic writing that made it such a hit, something directorial Brad Silberling seems to realize that. Of course, he could have gone on with a simple adaptation anyway, his target audience probably not being the most familiar with a poorly written script, but Silberling had something more creative in mind. Rather than compress three books into two hours and then call it a day, Silberling opted to use Snicket’s original books as a palette from which to paint a beautiful moody canvas. The result is one of the most visually arresting children’s films ever made, with a level of care taken over its cinematography and production design that is unparalleled for films of its nature. He’s a fantastic example of someone weaponizing the constraints placed on him to his advantage, Silberling silencing any doubts that this was just a simple cash grab to cash in on a line. bestselling books. A series of unfortunate events can suffer from trying to cram too much material into too short a runtime, but there’s no denying the technical prowess of Silberling and his team.
Two of the biggest influences on A series of unfortunate events were A little princess and sleepy hollow, two films that operate on the fine line between dream and reality. It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer for both films, was hired by Silberling to take control of his camera in what was by far his biggest directorial choice. Seek help from this sleepy hollow decorators and costumers Rick Heinrich and Colleen Atwood, respectively, Lubezki gives the film an otherworldly vibe that feels like it was ripped straight from a child’s imagination. For example, the gothic design of Olaf’s house which eschews primary colors in favor of a palette of blacks, grays and greens looks like it was kicked and shouted from a Brothers Grimm popular tale, and the idea that anyone would gladly call this place home is the film’s most terrifying thought. This muted use of color persists throughout the film, giving the impression of a world where every trace of humanity has long since been thrown away.
At times, the cinematography is almost overwhelming, like an opening scene on a beach where the Baudelaires first learn the news of their parents’ death. The austere colors and the vast decor completely eclipse the children in a plan that evokes the sterility of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, encapsulating their plight of being just innocent little children in a vast, indifferent world. However, Lubezki makes sure our teenage heroes never get lost in the scenery, with the camera staying by their side for much of the duration (resulting in plenty of low-angle shots that make the world even more terrifying) . Its subtle inclusion of warmer lighting in scenes featuring only three of them perfectly captures their struggle for happiness in a world that seems entirely devoid of such things, and its sudden removal when the next tragedy strikes makes the even brighter memories.
To complete this look, the film uses special effects, with Silberling favoring practical effects over digital effects as much as possible. When paired with the inherently detailed sets that earned Heinrichs a Best Art Direction nomination at the 2005 Oscars, it gives the world A series of unfortunate events a tangible quality that allows the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the struggles of Baudelaire’s orphans, despite the extravagant nature of much of its plot. The best example of this is the use of matte paints rather than green screens during exterior scenes (like in the aforementioned beach scene). Although their stylized design means the viewer will never mistake these places for those that actually exist, their presence gives Lemony Snicket’s fantasy world an authenticity that digital effects could never replicate. The sense of timelessness that lingers throughout the film adds to this sense of unreality, with sets and costumes that seem to belong to any period from the Victorian era to today. It’s a world like no other, swinging between different designs like clockwork, and Silberling and company love every minute of it.
No discussion on A series of unfortunate events is complete without mention of by Thomas Newman soundtrack, an ominous collection of tracks that sounds like a typical children’s movie score if it had tripped and fallen on its way to hell. His luck with heart-tugging strings and whimsical pianos makes him an ideal candidate for a story as agonizing as this, and pushing that sound through the filter of youthful fascination reminiscent of his work on The world of Nemo (with just a touch of her darker side of road to perdition), Newman is able to create one of the most evocative soundscapes of his career. Rather than trying to dominate the footage as if competing with the rest of the crew, Newman infuses each scene with atmospheric notes of melancholy that enhance rather than detract from Lubezki’s visuals, and the result is the tape perfect sound to accompany the Baudelaire orphans and their difficulties.
It’s a testament to the film’s production values that they make the film highly recommended despite its other flaws. As noted earlier, the decision to cram three books into one movie may feel like you’re just watching a recap video on YouTube rather than the full-fledged adaptation it should be, perfect for kids skimping on their reading homework but disappointing for everyone. The acting is also a bit mixed. While much of the supporting cast shuns shrewdly between comedy and drama, bouncing around the set with such ease, it’s as if they were placed there by Lubezki himself (with special mention to Billy Connelly and Meryl Streep like two of Baudelaire’s ephemeral guardians), others seem to get lost in the vistas. Liam Aiken is more of a note as Klaus Baudelaire, a major issue since he essentially shares co-protagonist duty with his sister, while the level of awkwardness Jim Carrey exudes as Olaf makes his usual characters tame in comparison. . It’s entertaining, there’s no doubt about it, but it lacks the touch of genuine terror that Harris brought to the Netflix show.
But despite all the strengths of this series, it cannot compete with the design of its predecessor. Never has a children’s film looked better than this, with Silberling and Lubezki going above and beyond what would have been required of them for such a project. Their work perfectly captures the aesthetics of the books and manages to lend a tactile quality to something that should be too over the top to be taken seriously. The world of Lemony Snicket is dark, but also one where flickers of light can be found if searched long enough. It is exactly this conviction that defines the appearance of A series of unfortunate eventsand the execution is beautiful to watch.