Books

Wonderful Woe: A Look Back at A Series of Unfortunate Events (book)

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

So begins A Series of Unfortunate Events, one of the more remarkable success stories to come out of the Harry Potter-generated glut of children’s novels at the turn of the century. Obsessed with tragedy, cloaked in mystery, and featuring a neo-gothic aesthetic, author Daniel Handler’s chronicles of the Baudelaire orphans featured everything children’s books were supposed to avoid. Especially at a time when Potter-wannabes were flooding the market with “chosen one” narratives in mystical lands, following the Baudelaires as they hopped from one sad experience to the next was a welcome shock for young readers, with the series quickly jumping up the charts and Hollywood fast-tracking a movie adaptation.

Twelve years after its final entry was published, A Series of Unfortunate Events remains a fascinating piece of literature in its own right. While plenty of children’s stories have focused on orphans, such as the wildly popular Boxcar Children¸ none had ever made their enduring misery the focal point of the story. Here, we follow Violet, Klaus, and the baby Sunny Baudelaire after their parents were killed in a mysterious house fire. They are pursued constantly by the master of disguise Count Olaf, who hopes to claim their fortune by killing off each of their guardians and becoming their guardian himself.

This cycle of misery is the product of nearly every adult in the series ignoring the warnings and wisdom of the orphans, especially their estate’s executor Mr. Poe. A clueless bank employee, Mr. Poe contradicts the children each time Olaf shows up with a new persona, only to finally recognise the truth after it is too late. Their guardians, including the nicest ones, are similarly aloof, asserting their belief that adults know best.

Even when the orphans finally escape from Mr. Poe’s placements halfway through the series, this depiction of adults does not go away. As the Baudelaires adopt disguises and new identities to allude both authorities and Count Olaf, the adults they encounter continue to exhibit cruelness, stupidity, or both.

This world created by Handler ends up exhibiting the common kid complaint: adults won’t take them seriously, even when they are correct. By taking that complaint to its extreme, the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events provides young readers with a kind of affirmation that is understandably attractive. What young reader would not be drawn into a world where only kids have the wit and means to solve the problems made by adults?

Handler’s expressionistic portrayal of the world, through both its artwork and descriptions, reflects the evil created by the adults, drawing heavily from the neo-gothic approach of Tim Burton. Its incorporation of Victorian design with more modern technology keeps the story from being set in any particular time, adding to the strangeness. All of these choices offer a potent and distinctive mix that is enhanced through physical design choices such as uneven end pages, and a page at the beginning of each book for you to write that the book belongs to your “library.”

All of this physical presentation becomes an extension of the series’ central mystery, which involves the Baudelaire parents and a secret society known as the VFD. The mystery dominates the second half of the series, finally clarifying both narrator Lemony Snicket’s role and incorporating clever grammatical wordplay in trying to figure out what “VFD” truly stands for. To further the mystery, Handler published several tie-in books that end up being necessary to fully understanding the series’ lore. Both The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket and The Beatrice Letters contain plenty of laughs and enjoyable details that further explain the connections that become so important in the final and 13th book.

That entry, suitable titled The End, finds our protagonists stranded on a deserted island, finally uncovering the truth about their parents and the VFD organisation. It is a surprisingly low-key end to their adventures, contrasting with the bombast of Mockingjay or The Deathly Hallows. In many ways, it shows how Handler expertly evolved his series to cater to the maturing tastes of his original readers, transitioning from the serial guardian-hopping of early entries to solving an overarching mystery, and finally concluding the series with our protagonists setting sail from the island, not knowing what will happen to them.

After a decade of other series co-opting its weirdness and off-beat tone, A Series of Unfortunate Events remains the best option out there for young readers wanting something a little bit different. It is a testament to its quality that it remains a viable property almost two decades after it began, with Netflix committing to filming the entire series for its platform. For fans who may be hesitant to revisit the series so many years on, rest assured that there is plenty here to keep you as enthralled as you were when you first read them. For all others, the only thing more unfortunate than the events of the Baudelaires’ lives would be missing out on reading them.

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