Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"A Series of Unfortunate Events," Part 1 of 2: Why the Movie Didn't Work

All things considered, I am not a fan of saying I dislike things, and I'm especially not a fan of passing off my dislike as any sort of objective truth. I'm one person out of 7 billion. I didn't even like Mad Men. So I tend to not feel comfortable with saying, "Hey, this thing I don't like actually is genuinely bad."

But in the light of one of my favourite book series receiving a second live-action adaptation -- and having experienced all of what both versions have to offer -- I feel like I can, and honestly I should. Because appreciating the brilliance of the new Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events does somewhat require taking a critical eye to the 2004 film adaptation.

To start: it's important to note the most important elements of the original book series by Daniel Handler (working under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket). The things that made it what it was and led to the fascination with this grim little series.

Point the First: Count Olaf is not the villain -- society is. We peg Count Olaf as our bad guy because, well, he's the one killing people and terrifying babies in an attempt to steal money from orphans. However, Count Olaf is an ineffective bad guy. He's a washed-up actor whose disguises are bad and whose personas are worse. That's the entire point. We, the reader, are complicit because we like to think that we would totally recognise Olaf, that we would call the police, that we are as smart as the Baudelaire children... however, it becomes achingly obvious that we know (and occasionally have been) these unobservant adults. His success with bad disguises is laughable at first, but more and more painful as time goes on because we know, sadly, stuff like this can happen.

Point the Second: The aesthetic is interesting, but not everything. Illustrator Brett Helquist, along with Handler's prose, created a sort of time-indefinite setting that had cars and movie theaters, but also felt somehow as if it should predate those things. The sensibilities are modern, but the appliances are mid-20th century at best. It's equal parts Pleasantville and Addams Family with a dash of prim Victoriana. But only a dash. And that aesthetic does not drive the story; it simply gives the story a setting in which people still have entire libraries in their house and cell phones can't save the day.

Point the Third: The children save themselves. The villain is abstract, but the children are their own heroes. They have helpers along the way, but it's imperative to note that the day is always saved by Violet's inventiveness, Klaus's keen researching skills, and Sunny's sharp teeth. That's one reason this series is so important: it encourages the idea of kids being intelligent and resourceful, and also shows that no matter what your talent is, it can be useful.

Point the Fourth: Very Fascinating Details. There is a greater story at work than just the Baudelaires protecting themselves and their fortunes. For many of us, the original book series and its tie-in works were our first toe in the pool of augmented reality games, as we learned the Sebald code and traced names and unscrambled anagrams. The books are a great puzzle box, and Lemony Snicket is the key -- we just don't know how until the very end.

Understanding these four points that made the books successful should make any adaptation equally successful... and these points are where the 2004 film fell apart.

Make no mistake, there were some lovely things about it. Jude Law's lonely narration, Colleen Atwood's costumes, Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep in their roles as two of the Baudelaires' ill-fated guardians, Craig Ferguson as the Mounds/Almond Joy commercial dude, that thing where the vintage car had a remote key-lock... all excellent. But these things did not pull together to make the movie what it needed to be.

Attacking Point the First: Count Olaf's villainy.

I'm gonna be square with you: I am not a Jim Carrey fan. He won me over in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a few others, but overall I just don't dig him. Subjectivity is a thing. That is not the reason I didn't like his Count Olaf, but I believe it's fair to put that out front.

Nowhere else would this statement be damning, but -- he played too effective a villain. Bordering on melodrama? Yes. (The car on the railroad tracks, etc.) Thwartable? Eventually. But when I watched him, I got the feeling that we were dealing with someone who actually needed to be genuinely feared... when the genuine fear should be coming from the fact that these three children are being cornered by a blithering incompetent and no one can see it.

Olaf needs to be comic. He needs to be funny to cut exactly how dire this story would be otherwise, and we need to be able to laugh at him so that we can effectively ridicule his stupidity. But that wasn't the sort of "comic" that Carrey brought to the role. He wasn't a ludicriously terrible villain with incredible luck; he was a vaguely effective villain with a shtick. Which removes the entire central aspect of fear.

Attacking Point the Second: The aesthetic.

Man, I hate doing this. Because Colleen Atwood is costume bae. (For those who don't know, she's Tim Burton's go-to costume designer -- which is why Count Olaf looks like Jack Skellington with a unibrow.) In fact, there were several Burton alums on this production, giving it a sort of timeless Victorian gothic, Sleepy Hollow-y, late 90s back wall of Hot Topic vibe.

This is hands down one of my favourite looks because I never outgrew my goth phase. But it's not what this series is.

I can tell you why it got this look. We were less than five years off American McGee's Alice, and the Spiderwick Chronicles series ran its outreach in the same vein of "Don't read this book"-ery (as it turns out, the two series are absolutely nothing alike, and the Spiderwick series is quite fun). We were still slightly in that valley of that style being everything, even where it wasn't meant to be. And it grieves me to say that the fixation on the Tim Burton/American McGee aesthetic hurt the film, since Violet's dress is one of the greatest costumes ever -- but it wasn't meant for Violet Baudelaire.

Attacking Point the Third: The children saving themselves.

Handler has made no bones about his issues with the film -- in one case pointing out that a scene in which Violet saves herself in the book is altered so that Klaus is the hero of the hour. There is no shortage of heroism to go around in the original story: most big issues are solved by all three siblings working together, but each alone gets regular moments in the spotlight. Klaus is not so starved for attention that he requires a loan; one of Handler's great balancing acts was making each of the Baudelaires equally competent, equally helpful, and equally important.

There are also nods to brilliant moves made by the children in the books that are, in the movie, then found out and thwarted by Count Olaf (see Point the First) -- why even reference them if they're going to be done away with? It's as though the movie thinks it's being quite cheeky with us, but instead is putting its foot rather firmly in its mouth.

Attacking Point the Fourth: Vaguely Followed Directions.

This... is a hard point to attack, honestly, and I feel quite bad coming after it. Because the final book of the series, The End, didn't come out 'til two years after the film was released. And in the books, there was a slow-build to what Count Olaf's tattoo and the strange phraseology of the Baudelaires' various guardians meant. It's a small detail, and one that perhaps the wardrobe department should have come to Handler about -- but even going right down to the VERY FIRST DETAIL, the eye tattoo, it doesn't dig into the subplot. (People new to the series may think an eye is an eye is an eye, which is understandable... but as in all things Snicket, many things have many meanings.)

This means one of two things: either it never occurred to the crew to research the loose threads hanging around and through the books, or they knew that they'd only be covering the first three and it didn't seem like enough to bother bringing in what's honestly the real story.

You may have loved the movie. That's fine. I know plenty of people who did. And if you enjoyed it, keep enjoying it. Whether it was a good or a bad movie is not for me to say... but it was an ineffective adaptation. Which was a great disappointment for fans, who wanted to see the the exploits of the orphans played out on screen.

But this is only part 1 of 2 -- Friday, I delve into the new Netflix series, starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket -- and why this lower-budgeted, smaller-named production is the version we've been waiting almost 20 years for.