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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004)

I’ve read the first three books in Lemony Snicket’s “Unfortunate Events” series and found them to be highly entertaining, charmingly sadistic, dark, educational and fun. I read them in order a couple months ago knowing about the upcoming film version. As I read them, I wondered how on earth they would manage to not only maintain the distinct voice of its narrator which gives the stories an alternately somber and comic tone, but also how it would keep from being repetitive since the books seem to follow a certain formula one right after the other. Three books in a row, each with the same overall structure being made into one movie. It’s not exactly a formula for success, but I’m happy to report that this turned out to be one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen.

Director Brad Silberling and screenwriter Robert Gordon have achieved something quite miraculous with the film version of this eccentric series. They have not only maintained the tone of the books, but have also kept the story bleak and free of happy outcomes. The real author of the books, Dan Handler, has always shied away from sentimentality. The filmmakers do not, which makes this movie all the more astonishing. The last thing I expected when walking into the theater was to be moved. Most hardcore purists would criticize a movie for sentimentalizing their beloved series. I applaud it.

It works because the filmmakers know they have an obligation to be true to the source material, which, in essence is very sad, but also to deliver a real movie experience unlike anything anyone has ever seen. The Lemony Snicket books don’t have the commercial cache as the Harry Potter series. The filmmakers don’t seem as interested in starting a franchise and keeping it alive as they are in telling a whole story that has a wonderful emotional payoff. It captures the voice, the essence and the tone of the books while also maintaining an identity of its own. That’s what makes a great adaptation.

The story concerns four main characters, three of them kids. Fourteen year old Violet Baudelaire (Emily Browning), her twelve year old brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) and their baby sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) have just lost their parents in a mysterious fire. The family lawyer, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), must find the nearest relative who can look after the children. Unfortunately, that happens to be a deranged stage actor named Count Olaf (Jim Carrey, in appropriately maniacal form).

Olaf has no interest in the children, just the money they have inherited. The children have never seen him before and have never heard of him. He lives in a creepy, run-down manor and soon puts the kids to work cleaning up his rat infested kitchen and mopping his smelly floor. The kids wonder how their parents could be so cruel as to send them here. Should they try and escape? What could possibly be up Olaf’s sleeve? Most importantly, how can they keep from being murdered by him?

It helps to know that each of these kids has a special trait: Violet loves to invent things. When she ties her hair back, it means her mind is at work on how to build a better mousetrap. Klaus loves to read and has absorbed an ungodly amount of knowledge in his short life. Sunny, who speaks in noises with the aid of subtitles, loves to bite. She has probably the strongest teeth this side of baby Jack Jack at the end of “The Incredibles.” The kids are quite resourceful and don’t intend to let Olaf win every round.

Eventually, it becomes known that Olaf has the worst intentions. It is up to Mr. Poe to find more suitable guardians for the Baudelaire orphans (which is where a new book would start). Unfortunately, every time they find someone less sadistic (but no less eccentric) than Olaf, a familiar face rears its ugly head and the kids find themselves in the clutches of His Greediness once again. These unfortunate events revolve around a speeding train, a house on stilts and lots and lots of leeches, not to mention a quivering, frightened wordsmith played by Meryl Streep.

Speaking of which, it’s important to note that a great adaptation depends not only on the writer/director’s approach, but also the cast. Carrey couldn’t be a better choice for Olaf. Some have criticized Carrey’s performance for being too rubberfaced and cartoonish, almost as though Ace Ventura invaded the set of a Tim Burton movie. Not true. He plays Olaf as he should be: A deranged over-actor and not quite a master of disguise. Carrey has played dark comedic roles before, such as in the underrated “The Cable Guy.” Here, he has just as much interest in creating a memorable villain as in creating some of his funniest characters yet. The two kids also do splendid work, especially Emily Browning, who effortlessly carries the final act.

Many would see the trailer for this movie and guess right off the bat that Tim Burton directed it. It certainly has the look of a Burton movie, but that doesn’t make it derivative. Silberling’s movie doesn’t depend on its visuals to grab us. They become secondary to the story and the thought put into its execution. This makes Silberling the perfect choice for this project, seeing as how his first three films—“Casper,” “City of Angels” and “Moonlight Mile”—all focus on the theme of death and what it does to those who have to walk the earth saddened, lost and afraid.

I have heard from many people who have seen this movie that they now want to rush out and get the books. I highly recommend it even after seeing the movie. The Lemony Snicket voice has plenty of entertainment value in and of itself that it won’t matter if you’ve already seen the movie and know the characters. In fact, the first book especially has a few more surprises in store, which to me also makes for a great adaptation. Some people think that a movie must completely abide by the book in order to be great. I say an even better adaptation should make people want to read and know more. Not because the film was unsatisfying or frustrating, you understand, but because it was so great. How unfortunate that it doesn’t happen more often.

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