From Page to Screen, from Child to Adult
Like most children growing up through the early 2000s, I read Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as each book came out; I voraciously searched for copies of the books at libraries, at used bookstores, at Scholastic book fairs until I owned every book in the series. (All 13 of them still have a place of honour on my bookshelf.)
And, as a child who was around the age of Violet and Klaus, I loved the Baudelaire children. Like Klaus, I loved to read. Like Violet, I loved to invent. (The only one I didn’t identify with was Sunny, having neither very sharp teeth nor any skill in cooking.)
The books were quirky. They were funny. And most importantly, they were about three children who overcame every set of odds stacked against them, using their own intelligence, their own nature, their very humanity to save themselves over and over again. As a child, the books were ones of hope.
And I remember, very clearly, shrugging in confusion every time the events of the books were described as grim, hopeless, despairing, or any one of a number of adjectives Lemony Snicket had in his vast vocabulary. Because at the end of the day, the Baudelaire children would always win. Their fiercely stubborn hope and wits would prevail, and Count Olaf would once again be defeated.
Last year, Netflix began developing these beloved children’s books into a television series, which I eagerly watched the first season of the moment it was released. There were many, many things the show did perfectly: it captured the feeling of the books with stunning cinematography, the uncertain time period of the show (where streaming services and telegraphs exist side by side), the surreal nature by which everything feels as if it’s being watched through a layer of water, slightly skewed.
But I was taken aback by how dark it was. After a couple of episodes all the hope had been drained out of me, and I didn’t have the will to continue. My enthusiasm for the show was being sapped, episode by episode, until I was unsure I wanted to continue watching. The title sequence refrain of “Look away” seemed more accurate than any of Lemony Snicket’s warnings in the books had ever felt.
Where had Netflix gone wrong? What about this remake of a series I had loved as a kid made it, frankly, at times uncomfortable to watch?
It took me until about halfway through the show’s second season, which was released worldwide on March 28, 2018, to realize that the problem possibly wasn’t with the adaptation, but with me.
See, I am no longer the child I was when I read these books, I am an adult; and thus, it is no longer the children I identify with, but the adults.
And the adults on this show are nothing to be proud of.
Fellow TBT writer Haley Gillilan wrote a fantastic piece on What Generation Z Can Learn from the Baudelaire Orphans; in it, she mentions that for a series with a whole host of awful adult characters, it’s impossible to decide which one is the worst.
The adults on this show are oblivious, dense, selfish, incompetent, and in some cases, straight-up evil, but perhaps the worst aspect of all of them is the disregard they have for the safety and happiness of the three children in their care.
Even the most well-meaning of the adults — Uncle Monty, Jeremy Squalor, Hector — don’t listen to the children when they insist that Count Olaf has once again appeared to enfold them in his schemes; they are too immersed in their own lives and problems, their fears, their jobs to pay attention to the evil that threatens the Baudelaires’ lives and fortune.
And what about VFD? The adults who are a part of the secret organization the Baudelaire parents once belonged to are the best this world has to offer, but even then their help is often too little, received too late; and those that have the best chance of putting an end to Olaf’s nefarious ways too often end up dead by his hand.
God, this story is miserable.
The only true help (and friendship) the Baudelaires receive is from the two Quagmire triplets, who similarly lost their parents (and brother) in a devastating fire and have similarly been following a path of misfortune. But when the Quagmires sail away in Hector’s massive air balloon at the end of “The Vile Village”, the Baudelaires are once again on their own.
In the residences of their relatives; in a school; in a penthouse suite in a city that has people looking for Count Olaf on every street corner; in a village where the adults are supposed to raise the Baudelaires as their own: all of these places should have offered the children safety and security, and all of them fell far too easy to the evil knocking at their doors.
In the school, a place of learning, the library was only open ten minutes a day and classes consisted of fulfilling the teachers’ own selfish desires. In the hospital, a place of healing, Violet nearly had her head cut off by a rusty saw. At the carnival, a place of happiness, Klaus and Violet watched one of their mentors fall to her death and then lost Sunny to the clutches of Count Olaf.
At no point since they lost their parents have the Baudelaires been allowed to be children, and enjoy the world the way children should. And this is perhaps one of the saddest realizations of all.
As a child, the message of the story was that your own wits and bravery were enough to save you from any hardship; as an adult, the message is that we too often fail those we should be looking out for.
Yes, the adult characters are caricatures, but in each of them is something real, perhaps none so frighteningly as Mr. Poe. He cares about the children only enough to see them carted from one home to the next, cares more about his tickets to the opera or his wife’s newspaper; he trusts the words of a strange adult over the children’s own observations and his unwillingness to listen to them (after they prove time and time again...and again, and again that they are worth listening to) results in endangering their lives on more than one occasion. His indifference is as real and stinging as a slap to the face.
And yes, the Baudelaires themselves are caricatures, and the situations they wind up in are absurd and exaggerated, but at heart they represent the lost and abandoned children of our own world, who do not have the ingenuity, the means, the deus ex machina by which to escape.
The question, then, becomes one of self-reflection, as we wait for the third and final season to be released next year: in which ways do we see the adults of A Series of Unfortunate Events inside ourselves, and what can we do to be better?