A Series of Unfortunate Events : the recipe to a good adaptation
This is a short analysis of the recent
adaptation A Series of Unfortunate Events by Netflix. I will not mention
everything here, it would require much more time and analysis but
here is a general appreciation. Careful for spoilers !
Adaptations are quite tricky to accomplish because being true to the original work while bringing novelty to the piece is not so easy. The best adaptations are often the ones that manage to channel the spirit of the original work. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a very successful example of this. It was already visible in the first trailer where Lemony Snicket actually walks on the set of the filming to tell us not to watch this series. Right here, you have three core elements of the original series : our narrator-character, the breaking of the fourth-wall and the plea not to look into this horrific story. That last element actually is a known way to catch the reader/viewer’s attention and make him want to know more.
When it comes to A Series of Unfortunate Events, the character of Lemony Snicket is crucial. Therefore the adaptation needs to be perfectly true to his features. As a child, I really believed Lemony Snicket was this mysterious author hidding from malevolent authorities. The fact that Lemony is actually out of the story ,since he is the author/narrator, and a full part of it builds the whole myth around this series.
When I saw the movie, I did not get that feeling of mystery around Lemony mainly because it is not cleary explicited that he is part of all this : the viewer doesn’t see on-screen any important hint that Lemony is a central character of the story, he is presented above all as the writer.
In the Netflix series, Lemony is the first person the viewer visually encounters, just like in the books. The fact that you can see him entirely makes him a reassuring presence throughout the show : he is your guide. The show stages this aspect very cleverly by blending Lemony in the situations the Baudelaires find themselves in, usually through his costume.
Thanks to this process, the narrator’s role is fully depicted. A narrator that addresses directly to the reader/viewer is usually out of the story and Lemony is indeed “out” since he is telling the events. But Lemony is also “in” as an important character. The show drops hints along the way which keep getting bigger gradually : his investigation, the letters to Beatrice, the fact that he is being chased, among other things, and of course the reveal of the picture with Olaf in the last episode.
All these proofs show that Lemony really is involved in this story. It
is very fortunate that they kept the dedications to Beatrice at the
beginning of each segment of the story because she is the one who ties
Lemony to the story. She actually acts as his muse, she is the main reason why he writes, the name Beatrice being a reference to Dante’s own muse.
Since he is an « in-between » character, literally the bridge between you and the story, Lemony is the one who constantly breaks the fourth-wall. This aspect is so crucial in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It allows Lemony to act as the antic chorus or Prologue : “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” (The Bad Beginning).
With those few lines, the essence of the plot is completely laid before your eyes, just like the ancient tragedies. In the series, apart from those lines, the opening song has the exact same role : “Every single episode is nothing be dismay.”
The breaking of the fourth-wall is also at the core of both series because story-telling mecanisms are explained through it. In the Reptile Room, Lemony explains the dramatic irony which is then again an aspect of the antic tragedies. As I remember it, the book series crossed the fourth-wall to teach something to the reader : a word, writing techniques and less straightforwardly, literary references. All these elements were fortunately brought into the show as well.
Now Lemony is mainly the one to break the wall, as allowed by his narrator status. What is unsettling for the viewer is when Count Olaf breaks it, usually to advertise the TV show and stare at the camera for a couple of seconds. This leads to the other important aspect of an adaptation : the creativity. The writers did not only represent Olaf, they actually add depths according to the new medium : what would Olaf do if he was in a TV series ? Break the fourth-wall and sing its opening sequence !
A short word on the amazing cast, especially Neil Patrick Harris who pulled out a very good Count Olaf. This character is very complex to play, he needs the right amount of villainy, humor and the talent of an actor who can play a character playing other characters. Jim Carrey brought too much of his own eccentricity to the character and you saw more of the actor than of the character. Neil Patrick Harris really understood and nailed all of Olaf’s facets.
Hence adaptations would be rather dull without creativity and novelty.
Sure a lot of dialogues are actually taken word by word from the books because they are good as they are but an adaptation needs to adapt precisely even more when the media is different.
A book and a TV show are of course very different mainly because of the images. In a book, a description can only be completed by the reader’s imagination. In a show, what you see allows very little space for imagination. This is why a successful adaptation is one that can get the spirit, the ambiance of the world, conveyed by the original words, and transcripts it on screen. From the language of worded images to the language of filming.
The unsettling ambiance, the faded colours and surreal pastel imagery are very
fitting for the Baudelaires’ story. The main aspect of the series is
its dark humor and stories that you find rarely in
children’s book : one death if not more per book, usually a
gruesome one. The TV show manages to render the baudelairian world : this very specific atmosphere, the feeling of being oppressed by all the places in which the Baudelaires find themselves.
Finally the most important aspect of an
adaptation is that it must appeal to all audiences.What is
complicated about making adaptations is that they are received by two
different audiences : the one who knows the original material and the
one who doesn’t and their first interaction with the original
universe is through the adaptation.
That’s why getting the atmosphere right is so important, it shows the specificities of the work in another way which should not “betray” the original story.
An adaptation is full of references that will be immediately recognized only by the ones familiar with the original piece. These references show the adaptors love for the original work and also creates a complicity between them and the well-aware viewer. Which book lover did not scream at the sugar bowl in episode 2 or at those four simple words : the world is quiet here ?The beauty of references is that they are hidden, they could be seen as completely normal by an unaware viewer : the scene of the sugar bowl seems very innocent.
It allows the adaptors to play on what the reader already knows. Take the first appearance of the Quagmire mother and father: most of the book readers thought them to be the Baudelaire mother and father even though they know very well it is impossible. This builds up until the revelation in the first part of the Miserable Mill. Not only this plays with the well-aware reader but also stages already the Quagmire trio and most of their backstory. Being already intertwined since the first episode with the main story, they meet naturally at the end of the season and do not appear previously unmentionned like in the books.
As thrilling as this is, if the adaptation is only met for the experts, it won’t be a total success. An adaptation also needs to speak to new viewers who have no knowledge of the original work. This is why there is a need for balance of references so the newcomer will not spent his time on Wikipedia trying to figure out what happens. How the series introduced right away the Quagmires is actually rather clever : it allows the newcomer not to be lost in all the key characters.
Lastly, this show really catches the core humor of the original work by playing on the fact that it is an adaptation and therefore needs to depart sometimes from the original sequences. At the beginning of the Miserable Mill (episode 8), Mr. Poe freaks out because the Baudelaires are gone and in the middle of his panicked speech, he says : “It’s off-book !’. And indeed it is, because in the books the Baudelaires don’t go to Lucky Smells Lumbermill by themselves but are brought there by Mr Poe. An adaptation makes choices and the show plays on that aspect.
Of course, this show would need a 300 pages-long essay because of all the references and allusions not only to literature but also foreshadowing the main story. This show completely smashes the movie adaptation which did not manage to really transcript well neither the atmosphere nor the characters.
Remember, an adaptation is not a search of perfection because it will never be exactly like the original material. The change of medium requires changes in the story and the story-telling. The intelligence with which the choices are made makes all the difference between a good and a bad adaptation.