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Fortunate? Unfortunate?


Staff member
Jan 13, 2024
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I have such mixed feelings about A Series of Unfortunate Events (ASOUE). This series – 13 books published between 1999-2006 – became a big hit with young readers, who avidly followed each new release. It was made into a (critically unloved) movie starring Jim Carrey, and just a few month ago, was released as a (critically acclaimed) Netflix original series starring Neil Patrick Harris.

When it comes to the books, here’s what I loved:

The premise: 3 siblings, orphaned under mysterious circumstances, become heirs to an enormous fortune. They soon find themselves pursued from one book to the next by a supposed relative who is intent on getting his hands on their money. Unusual and unfortunate situations ensue.

The characters: The orphans, Violet, Claus, and Sunny Baudelaire, are curious, creative, and tenacious. Although their circumstances deteriorate dramatically, they remain loyal to each other and ever-optimistic. But they are also powerless, and in this embody most children, caught in a world where all the rules are dictated by adults. The scene stealer among the characters is, however, Count Olaf, their determined antagonist. He is completely off-kilter and inventive in utterly wicked and whacky ways.

The narrative gimmick: The entire story is supposedly authored and narrated by an elusive Mr. Lemony Snicket. Snicket tries to dissuade readers from following the “unfortunate” story of the Baudelaires, but of course this only serves to whet readers’ appetites. Along the way, he drops hints of his own mysterious connection to the story, further drawing readers into the plot.

The mood: The mood and tone are unusually dark for a children’s series. I found it verging on sadistic at times, but many readers young and old find the tone to be a refreshing deviation from typical, kid fare.

The dark humor: One simply has to admire the consistence of arch tone and over-the-top, gothic humor throughout the series.

The word play: Endless play on words – puns, definitions, malapropisms, misunderstandings, double-entendres, mysterious acronyms, and coded language…And despite all this linguistic sophistication, the books still succeed in being easy reads.

In brief, there is a lot to enjoy.

But while many of the books were a blast, I found the end to be quite a bust. I was left with the sense that author Daniel Handler came up with the idea of writing 13 books about a family of unlucky children – emphasis on the unlucky 13 – without giving as much thought to how to sustain and elegantly conclude the plot through said 13. Somewhere in the middle, the series starts to get very repetitive, and you can almost feel the author struggling to get to the finish line. To sustain interest, he introduces red herrings, and the series ends in existential hocus-pocus, resolving few if any of the mysteries, and absolving the author of much responsibility to his young readers.

THAT SAID, It is still a good series to dip into for all the reasons I mentioned at the beginning.

If you are unsure about the books for your young reader, hang on! There are still other ways to digest and enjoy:

The audiobooks: If your child won’t touch the books or needs a break from reading them, mix it up a little. Try one of the audiobooks narrated by Tim Curry, who is brilliant. The audiobooks are very long, but there are probably few greater treats in the genre than Tim Curry impersonating Esmé Squalor in The Ersatz Elevator, which is the best of the audiobooks in the Unfortunate Events series. Most of the books are narrated by Tim Curry. Some are narrated by author Daniel Handler, but I advise against listening to these – it is not his forte and he sounds positively exhausted reading his own work aloud at various points. (The audiobooks are available for purchase on Audible, and for free through Hoopla.)

The Netflix series: It is fantastic. Daniel Handler has been deeply involved in writing the screenplay thus far, and the results are a gift to old, new and prospective ASOUE fans alike. Each book is depicted over two episodes, which allows plenty of time for a faithful reproduction of the best that the books had to offer – the unique humor and word-play, the intentional absurdities, and rich development of the many whacky characters that populate the tale. Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is particularly delicious (and sometimes even a bit too creepily convincing) as he chews the scenery, as is Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. Highly recommended. Here’s hoping that the author will figure out how to tie up some of the more aggravating loose ends as the Netflix series progresses (Two more seasons to go as of this writing…) without annoying the ASOUE originalists. Now that would be a fortunate conclusion to the Unfortunate series, at least in my opinion.

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