For one reason or another, not every attempt at a film franchise is successful, but there is a story behind every failure.
Writing under the name Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events series is bleak from the start, where the three Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, are orphaned after their parents are killed in a house fire. For the rest of the thirteen books, they are then pursued by the scheming Count Olaf, who is out to get their enormous fortune.
However, it’s that tone that really made the books a success. That and the fact that Handler’s world is unlike any other seen in children’s literature. With a story that is hard to tell in which direction its going, and with dark-arched humour littered throughout, it made readers of all ages keep coming back for more – because that’s what they really are, adult’s books written for children.
The Bad Beginning
Given the number of Unfortunate Events books, it was inevitable, when plans for a film adaptation began, that it would be the first in a series. When the film rights were purchased in 2000 by Nickelodeon and Paramount, it was decided that the first three books would be combined into one film, with the same done for the remaining titles later on.
After Scott Rudin joined as producer, a number of directors expressed interested in the project, with the job eventually going to Barry Sonnenfeld. However, the pair both grew concerned of the way the studio was handling the project – production was moved cross-country to a cheaper location and more and more partners were brought on to raise more money.
The start date for filming was pushed back for more than a year, by which time Rudin and Sonnenfeld had both departed and Brad Silberling had taken over as director. Jim Carry was cast as Count Olaf, with all-star supporting players – Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Catherine O’Hara, Jude Law – later assembled. Filming finally began in winter 2003, and though lengthy (By the end Liam Aiken, who plays Klaus, had grown taller than his on-screen older sister Emily Browning) went by with little incident.
The film completed, the studio were concerned that it was not family-friendly enough, and had it re-cut. Deleted scenes go to show how much was omitted in order to try and keep it light. It was also heavily marketed, with plenty of tie-in merchandise produced in order to create plenty of excitement for A Series of Unfortunate Events (or to give the film’s somewhat laborious full title, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) when it first opened in December 2004.
The Austere Appraisal
Despite the warning signs of a long and uneasy production and studio interference, the film holds up. (Holds up enough, anyway.)
There’s a lot to like about it: on a technical level, it’s beautifully photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, Thomas Newman’s wonderful score serves the ominous tone, and Rick Heinrich’s production design is outstanding. With airs of expressionism seem throughout, his environments go a long way into bringing this surrealistic and fantastic world to life.
The script by Robert Gordon (who took over from Handler) does interesting things with the narrative, does well to hold audiences’ interests, and is also genuinely funny. Most importantly, though, it accurately captures the tone and feeling of unease found in the books, as The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr noted: “The movie, like the books, flatters children’s innate sense that the world is not a perfect place and that anyone who insists otherwise is trying to sell you something.“
The arc that connects the three stories together holds up, but at the same time the film can’t quite escape its episodic feeling. The transition from one story to the next is not smooth, and suddenly re-starting the plot and jumping between locations can feel a little jarring. This is something that would have become wearisome had it became a series.
Ultimately, the biggest issue with the film is that it’s unsure of what tone to take. It doesn’t know whether to commit to being either quirky and surreal or dark – leaning more towards the former at the risk of shrinking its potential audience. This uncertainty is personified by Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf, who by turns is a menacing and fearful man, and then doing dinosaur impersonations.
The Grim Greeting
The film was not a failure at the end of its run in cinemas, but it only just made a financial return. It got reasonable reviews, though fans were disappointed that the film was played more for laughs, but the likeliest reason for not performing as well as hoped was that audiences were probably unsure of what to make of it – especially those unfamiliar with the source material.
Despite its lukewarm reception, ASOUE would be nominated in four categories at the 2005 Academy Awards, with Valli O’Reilly and Bill Corso winning the gong for Best Makeup.
Having not been an out-and-out success, plans for a sequel fell by the wayside. Four years after the release of the original, a follow-up was still apparently on the table. Yet internal corporate problems within the studio and the lacklustre performance of the first seemingly dampened any remaining enthusiasm.
One concern regarding a sequel was that the young actors had grown too old to play their parts. Silberling suggested combatting this by having the character of Snicket say, at the top of the second film, that the actors were re-cast as they did not closely resemble the real Baudelaires. Though some were evidently prepared to fight for a sequel, it never materialised.
In 2014, Netflix announced they were producing a full series based on Handler’s books, with Barry Sonnenfeld serving as producer and showrunner. The show, which stars Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and carried the same name as the film, premiered three years later to faint enthusiasm (as does all Netflix series).
While it’s great to see a faithful adaptation to the books doing so well, the film that preceded it should also not be forgotten, if at least for its ambition and unforgettable visual style.