Film discussion

Looking back at… A Series of Unfortunate Events

In the hunt for the next Harry Potter-esque blockbuster series of the mid-2000’s, Hollywood understandably turned to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. While nowhere near the phenomenon that Rowling’s series was, author Daniel Handler’s series was arguably the closest thing it had in terms of competition with young readers. For a movie studio, that meant guaranteed box office, lots of merchandise, and several sequels. In an unfortunate series of events for the studio, none of those would come to pass.

Right from the start there would be struggles adapting a 13-volume children’s book series about orphans escaping a murderous man who was after their fortune. The script would need to condense multiple books into a single film. Veteran director Brad Silberling would need to navigate the tricky tone of the source material while bringing to life the visually-distinct world of the series. The cast would need to shine despite supporting characters getting little screentime, and producers would need to successfully market a film with no action scenes and a grim title to families.

Almost a decade and a half later, the odd thing is that A Series of Unfortunate Events actually accomplished all of those things. Its screenplay is understandably repetitious, but saved by the choice to use the first novel’s ending as the film’s. Its direction is strong, bringing appropriate amounts of humor and menace, and a star-studded cast including Meryl Streep and Jude Law turns in strong performances across the board. Taken on its own, it is a breezy and visually-stunning family film, and about as good of a movie adaptation as one could have hoped for.

At the same time, the main reason for the film’s under-performance at the box office is even more glaring today: A Series of Unfortunate Events is not well-suited for a movie adaptation. Each novel contains too little substance for a standalone film, but cramming multiple novels’ plots into one film keeps it from flowing.

While the Netflix adaptation was mostly done due to internal problems at Paramount making a movie sequel impossible, it is hard to deny that the miniseries format is a better fit for the series. For that reason alone, the movie struggles when compared to the more recent iteration, and it would not be surprising if the film begins to fade from the memories of many fans.

There is one thing that the movie has over the mini-series, though, and that is Jim Carrey.

While the comedian has never been everyone’s cup of tea, it is hard to deny that he is anything other than perfect as Count Olaf. His comedic mugging has always overshadowed his surprisingly skilled acting chops, and here he is allowed to put both on full display. Carrey’s take on the character plays up Olaf’s status as a failed actor, using that as an excuse for his exaggerated ego and boldness. That gives him plenty of chances to indulge in his trademark comic tangents, and almost all of the laughs from the film can be attributed to him.

But Olaf is also a stone-cold murderer, and here is where Carrey truly shines. His ability to exude menace and switch from comedy to darkness within the same shot is impressive, and exactly what is needed for the character. While the Neil Patrick Harris has done an admirable job  in the role for the miniseries, he has never been able to genuinely scare. In fact, much of his portrayal of Olaf has seemed like a watered down version on Carrey’s interpretation. None of that is say that NPH is slacking, but it is a testament to how fantastic Carrey was here.

Outside of those performances, the movie does offer plenty of visual delights, and holds the dubious distinction of being the only Nickelodeon film to win an Oscar due to its production design. Still, the miniseries once again wins out in this arena by taking the same approach and trying to improve on them. One area where it cannot compete, though, is its score. Thomas Newman provides his standard rhythmic motifs here, but the off-kilter nature of his compositions suits this film like a glove. While there are snippets of recurring melodies which would have certainly been reprised in the sequels, the one-off ideas for individual scenes are universally attractive and effective, adding some much-need propulsion to keep the flow of the film going.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is in a bit of a strange position now given the current miniseries adaptation. On its own merits, it remains a valiant attempt at adapting a beloved series and features many enjoyable and laudable aspects. While it is worth watching just to see Carrey’s definitive take on Olaf and admire the fantastic design elements, the success of the new version makes recommending the film harder than it was just a couple of years ago.

For casual fans, the miniseries will suffice. For the more dedicated, revisiting the film provides all you need for a quick jaunt back into Lemony Snicket’s world. Even if just to kill the time before the new season premieres.

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