The moment you start watching Netflix’s new show A Series of Unfortunate Events, Neil Patrick Harris implores you to stop. “Look away, look away,” he croons in the opening theme, “This show will wreck your evening, your whole life, and your day.” It’s the same approach the Series of Unfortunate Events books have always taken, both in their text and in their marketing: drawing fans in by telling them their lives would be much more enjoyable if they looked for almost any other story instead. The gimmick works — the fastest way to get kids to read something is to tell them they shouldn’t. Fortunately for Netflix, the television adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t nearly as terrible as the the marketing, theme song, and narration all claim.
Author Daniel Handler first launched the Series of Unfortunate Events novels in 1999, writing under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket,” who narrates in both his series and Netflix’s show. In 2004, Nickelodeon adapted the first few Snicket books into a theatrical movie, starring Jim Carrey, that was intended to launch a film franchise. But the film failed to take off at the box office, and the planned sequels were canceled. Now the books are getting the Hollywood reboot on Netflix, with an initial season that fittingly releases on Friday, January 13th.
The show’s plot closely follows the books. (For fans, the eight-episode season covers the events of the first four novels in the 13-book series: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill.) Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are orphans whose parents die in a mysterious fire. The show documents the (unfortunate) events of their lives as they’re passed around from guardian to guardian. Snicket tells the story of the villainous Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who pursues the children, trying to seize their inherited fortune. Along the way, a more substantial conspiracy involving the enigmatic VFD organization emerges as a major factor in the Baudelaires’ lives.
But the show doesn’t just follow the books’ story beats; it nails down the tone that made the stories so special. Most children’s books tend to treat children like children, but A Series of Unfortunate Events took its audience seriously, refusing to dumb down its content.
Individual novels rarely end on upbeat notes, and Snicket’s narration is quick to remind readers that the Baudelaires’ story isn’t a happy one. Characters are complex and morally gray, and as the series progresses, both the heroes and villains are forced to make choices that blur the lines between them. The world-building is rich with mysterious groups lurking in the background, and a deep interconnected backstory spanning the entire series for attentive readers to uncover alongside the Baudelaire orphans. While the current Netflix episodes only cover a comparatively short chunk of the overall series, it’s clear that they were produced with a great deal of care to ensure the feel of the books made the jump to the screen.