A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (narrator/character and pen name of author Daniel Handler) is an excellent series for readers of all ages. Alliteration, cryptic letters to the editor, absurd yet effective character-reduction, role reversals, diction-enhancing asides, unravelling mysteries of arson, murder, and secret societies... this is storytelling at its finest. When it comes to children's chapter books, nothing is more captivating and alluring than the tragic quest for answers of the Baudelaire orphans.
Though published between 1999 and 2006, the book series will remain timeless, if only revered by a cult following, due to its high-caliber writing and cleverly ambiguous and occasionally contradictory exposition and setting, but how about that single serving Nickelodeon Movies film from 2004?
When Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events came out in theaters, I was 13 years old, a devout fan of the book series, and disappointed with what I saw on the big screen. I think a lot of that disappointment stemmed from the fact that they changed and reshuffled plot points from the first three books. Released shortly after The Grim Grotto, the eleventh of thirteen novels, the tone of the film adaptation was in gross misalignment with the books as the literary story was reaching the pinnacle of its seriousness. This series probably didn't need a movie, but it got one anyway. For the studios in 2004, it was probably then or never in regards to a project based on the topically popular books, but fans would have to level with the movie's existence for better or for worse, and I'm glad to say now that although it isn't great it's not as bad as I once thought.
In order to appreciate this movie, one has to understand that it's a one-shot tribute to the book series. Whereas film franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings tell the full literary story in multiple installments that parallel the novels, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a solitary artist's homage to its source material. There was never a chance in hell they could have made 13 Hollywood movies, so in hindsight this approach shows a lot of integrity. Maybe a BBC or HBO mini-series or something like that might have been feasible, but it was Nickelodeon Movies that obtained the rights to create it. That's right, the makers of Clockstoppers (2002) and Good Burger (1997). That fact might have been a death sentence, but this particular project had over 5 and 10 times the budget respectively of the aforementioned films and turned out to be the best live action production Nickelodeon Movies has managed to put out to this day.
Jude Law and Jim Carey are the stars here with Law playing the role of narrator/author Lemony Snicket and Carey playing the villainous Count Olaf, and both contribute a degree of meta-analysis to the film. Jim Carey acting as Count Olaf who is poorly acting while donning various disguises adds a layer of depth to the performance. He's energetic but not in a stereotypical, different-movie-same-Jim-Carey-character kind of way which gives the film freshness but also credibility from an established comedic actor. Snicket is a difficult role to pin, and the problem is not with Law but the writing/directing around his character. Jude Law is fine; Snicket's nonchalance of being in dangerous and preposterous situations while writing is part of the humor in having a fully developed narrator who is also part of the greater story. The books are his first-hand account of the life of the Baudelaire orphans and only made the transition from manuscripts to published novels by way of secret delivery and the aid of his unnamed editor. In the movie, however, not only does Jude Law voice over certain sections but he also stars visually which makes the presence of a film director all too apparent. Of course, it's a movie, but to me this was an added layer of depth I did not enjoy. Lemony Snicket in the frame gives the feeling of documentary, second-hand interpretation, propaganda and the idea that this is perhaps not the shockingly true story of the Baudelaire orphans at all, in turn breaking the immersion needed to fully enjoy a tale of this nature.
The would-be guardians (Justice Straus, Monty, and Josephine) are well-cast (Catherine O'Hara, Billy Connolly, and Meryl Streep respectively) but ultimately have a low impact primarily because each of their characters only reside in one of three stories combined here. Although the movie covers plot events from The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window, it culminates in the stage production of Al Funcoot's The Marvelous Marriage, thereby mirroring the ending of the first novel and providing a relative degree of conclusiveness if only in comparison to the other books' falling actions. As a final sendoff, the credit sequence is fantastic with its gothic, surrealistic animations of the orphans fleeing from the ominous, inescapable force that is Olaf. In a way, it serves as an epilogue to the film; the Baudelaires move somewhere else, Count Olaf finds them, the story goes on.
While the characters of Violet and Klaus are well-scripted and feel authentic to their novel counterparts, it's for the best that they were played by no-name actors lest this would have been a Dakota Fanning/Haley Joel Osment circa early 2000s shitshow. The third Baudelaire child, Sunny, the infant who bites things, predictably doesn't make the film transition as well as her siblings but is not downright awful. Inevitably, a lot of other things just don't transfer well and much of the clever literary charm is simply lost in translation from book to movie. The characters of Sunny and Lemony Snicket, erraticness of the second and third novel plot inclusions, and much of the humor were struggling points, but the story and everything else is strong enough to make this a movie that ultimately floats, all things considered.
When it comes to film adaptations of novels, I don't think we'll ever again see anything as high-caliber as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) or The Godfather (1972). If a movie is serviceable and can add a new viewpoint or an interesting/exciting enough visualization, however, film adaptations are still worthwhile, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events manages to accomplish that worthiness if only just barely. If treated with less care, this very nearly could have been another Mike Meyers The Cat in the Hat (2003), but thankfully it's a decent movie which at least for me didn't spoil the book series in any way.