TV

The Vital Work of Validating Children’s Well-Placed Fears in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’

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The enormously popular Series of Unfortunate Events books begin with the quintessential nightmare of childhood: the sudden death of your parents. The Baudelaire children — Violet, Klaus, and the infant Sunny — are shipped from relative to relative after their mother and father perish in a mysterious fire, pursued relentlessly by Count Olaf, a vain two-bit actor determined to appropriate the Baudelaires’ inherited fortune.

The children, wise to Olaf’s deceptions from the off, try to evade him but are hindered — to dangerous effect — by the disbelief of their guardians, who dismiss justified fears as childish paranoia. Such blunt rebuttal of well-intentioned adult patronizing is rare in children’s literature, but for a precocious nine-year-old (and, later, troubled teenager) like me, it was a revelation.

So, in January, when Netflix released the first season of a TV adaptation of the books, I devoured all six episodes in a single weekend. I happened to be staying at my parents’ house in Ireland, sleeping in the childhood bedroom where I’d obsessed over the series’ thirteen installments, having just spent several months abroad struggling to write my own book. The cherished volumes were still on my shelves; I dusted them down, marveled at how many notes I had made in the margins, the quotes and definitions I had underlined — marks of comfort amid a brutal adolescence, still reassuring after so many years.

The new show is reassuring, too, hearteningly true to the camp-but-gloomy tone that made the books so enrapturing. That success is a relief to fans, who in 2004 suffered through a horrible film adaptation that overplayed the series’ absurdity by some distance. It was a Tim Burton–lite affair, hysterical but not funny, with Jim Carrey going full Jim Carrey and playing himself instead of Count Olaf. The misstep in tone may be ascribed to the fact that the film’s original screenwriter, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket’s veronym), and director Barry Sonnenfeld were pushed out by the studio and replaced; the Netflix attempt reunites them, and it is, mercifully, very funny and properly unsettling. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are bright and convincing as Violet and Klaus, and Neil Patrick Harris delivers an Olaf who is properly paradoxical, equal parts blundering and chilling.

Perhaps most crucially, the show nails the books’ rampant postmodernism (a few smugly self-referential jokes about TV streaming services aside). Patrick Warburton, playing Snicket as a glum enigma with an appropriately sumptuous baritone, addresses readers directly, as a contemporary figure struggling to get the children’s story published after the fact. Handler-as-Snicket did this in the books, too, which let the narrative bleed into the “real” life of the child reading, or rather, affirmed children’s instincts that there is no clear distinction between what is real and what is imagined. Promotional tours for the books featured Handler reading passages, fielding questions, and signing books as a “representative” of Lemony Snicket, which children found utterly unconfusing. They understood that Handler was both sort of and not at all Lemony Snicket, that he had both sort of and not at all written the books.

Handler trusted young readers to deal with narrative complexities like these, but he also validated our own intuitive knowledge that the world is a violent place where danger is unquantifiable, the deserving do not necessarily triumph, and the adults in our lives are, as we suspect, just as powerless and confused as we are. That last revelation, for me, came just in time.

I was fifteen when the series passed its halfway mark, obsessed with unspooling its mysteries to bring some order to my own turmoil. I didn’t have the words or the strength to use anything so prosaic as language, but I was angry about being ugly, about being too big, about simply being looked at. But being angry is not an easy or acceptable thing for a girl to express, and so I turned it inward. I separated egg whites, and starved, and cried at the bones that couldn’t announce themselves quickly enough. I yanked down sleeves to cover the network of scars expanding on my forearms. I wanted a grown-up to understand these things as the signifiers of pain they were intended to be, and I could not believe the bodily vocabulary I was trying to speak was so impenetrable to the adults around me. I wondered if I’d have to write it out in my own blood before they would notice.

Luckily, the series was there to listen to the part of me that was tired of being disbelieved. It responded, on nearly every page, You’re right. They don’t listen. They can’t help.

It also offered me its version of a glimmer of hope, if anything in the books can be described as such — a mystery that stands as an ambivalent allegory for what might await the reader once they escape childhood. As the Baudelaires move from place to place, they begin to gain a shadowy understanding of a once-great organization, VFD, dedicated to humanitarian acts and the extinguishing of fires “both literally and figuratively.” It suggested to me that a vague but grand network of comrades underlay the mundanity of the world — that the aggressive ugliness of the suburbs was not final, and that if I went looking I would find others like myself, who valued what I wished to value: altruism, community, learning.

The mystery is never solved in any final way, and the first Netflix season offers only glimpses of its preliminary clues (a second season has already been announced, and a presumed third will finish out the story). In leaving the question open, the series once again holds its readers in high esteem, trusting us to recognize that the puzzle would never be completed because it was never really about what events occurred and in what order.

Rather, it was the mystery of human decency and cruelty, the question of how they coexist and merge one into the other. The redemption of the Baudelaire children’s story, which also redeemed so many wayward children like me, is the recognition that there are certain values that will always be worth dedicating yourself to, even when they don’t stop the onslaught of evil. We have to believe that these things will sustain us when they are all we have; that even when we lose everything, we still have each other and ourselves, and that while that isn’t nearly enough, it’s better than nothing.

 

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