Fierce Fidelity and Careful Transformation: ADAPTING LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS FOR NETFLIX.
'This show will wreck your evening, your whole life and your day.' These words ring out from the opening titles of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events, breaking the fourth wall and more warning away the audience, but doing so in a way that invites them to enjoy the tragedy that will unfold on their screens. By the third season, the theme song acknowledges that anyone who is still watching 'has clearly lost all reason'. Sung by the villainous character Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), it covertly invites us to keep watching, but to do so as competent, intelligent consumers of scary tales. In this way, it is the perfect articulation of a key message in the series of children's books that Unfortunate Events adapts: that young audiences, like adults, can gain pleasure from dark stories, and that tragedy as a form of storytelling should not necessarily be off limits to children. This is but one of many touchpoints in which the television series, as an adaptation, performs its fierce fidelity to the themes, moods and overall brand identity of its source material.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of a number of adaptations and reboots to appear in the Netflix catalogue in recent years. Indeed, adaptation has become a strategy used by the streaming provider to target children and families: Unfortunate Events sits alongside family-oriented adaptations, reboots and franchise extensions including Dragons: Race to the Edge, Lost in Space, Fuller House and Anne with an 'E". More broadly, the Netflix adaptation exists within a climate of reimagining, renewing and remaking that defines children's culture today, and is best exemplified by Disney's current strategy of producing live-action remakes of its animated classics. (1) If we look beyond children's culture, too, we find a proliferation of adaptations as products and a mainstreaming of adaptation as a practice. As academic Siobhan O'Flynn has noted, 'Adaptations are often undertaken to capitalize on an existing fan base.' (2) Reimagining a text that is already popular, beloved or appreciated on some level is a safe strategy for media providers such as Netflix, a means of guaranteeing some degree of success in a risk-averse production environment - all the more so when it comes to targeting young audiences, who can be unpredictable in their responses to new media products.
While adaptation as a strategy for targeting audiences is by no means unique to children's culture, children themselves are unique media consumers, and adaptation for young audiences therefore deserves focused investigation. Today's young audiences are growing up in a media environment in which reimagining is the norm. These young people will likely see their favourite books quickly adapted for the screen; they will encounter multiple versions of the same story more often than they will encounter stories that stand alone. Frequently, film critics and other cultural commentators seize upon these adaptations as signs of declining creativity within popular culture. For example, film critic Tasha Robinson has described screen adaptations of children's novels as 'poisonous' to children's cinema, because they turn novels that are tonally distinct and nuanced into 'nearly identical hunks of cookiecutter product'. The problem, she argues, is not with the source material; children's novels are often highly imaginative and rich with strong characters and complex, bold storylines. However, when these stories, characters and worlds enter what Robinson calls 'the screen-adaptation machine', they are often, she argues, stripped of their distinctiveness. (3)
The Netflix adaptation of Unfortunate Events, in contrast, has not received these criticisms; instead, it has been described as 'loyal to the books' (4) and also as a 'triumphant' (5) piece of entertainment in its own right. On the review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the first season received a 94 per cent rating from critics and an 81 per cent audience score, (6) indicating its positive reception among both cultural commentators and the broader public. The resounding success of Unfortunate Events along with its strategies of fierce fidelity and careful transformation make it a worthy case study in the context of debates and conversations about what children are watching and where that material comes from.
Netflix's Unfortunate Events is based on a series of thirteen books by American author Daniel Handler, who is better known by his pen-name Lemony Snicket (who is also the narrator of - as well as a character in - the book series). The plot concerns the adventures of Violet (played in the show by Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith/ Tara Strong) Baudelaire, three orphaned children who must continually escape their evil guardian, Count Olaf, and thwart his twisted plans to acquire the family fortune. As readers become more immersed in the story, they - along with the young characters - begin to discover that both the Baudelaire parents and Count Olaf himself were once part of a mysterious society known as 'V.F.D.', the secret history of which will reveal the reasons behind the 'unfortunate events' that the Baudelaire children endure.
Along with its trademark sense of sardonic and self-aware humour, the book series is defined by the way it breaks down the boundary between childhood and adulthood. The central characters are serious, intelligent, mature children (including a baby whose gibberish is translated into astute commentary), and these adult-like children encounter a long line of decidedly childlike adults, who are, by turns, foolish, greedy, bumbling or cruel. Despite their humorous aspects, the novels are essentially about harm and sadness: they explore the various crimes and types of harm that adults might inflict on children, from outright violence, cruelty and exploitation to the well-meaning but detrimental taking away of a child's agency; and they also explore the sadness that children can experience when they are mistreated, along with the cleverness and humour with which children might handle their sad, difficult lives.
At every turn, the books disrupt mythic notions of childhood innocence. Children, Handler repeatedly tells and shows us, are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with adult understandings of what it means to be innocent, nor are they shining beacons of hope and sweetness: they are clever and strong; they grapple with painful and terrible things; and, ultimately, they must deal with the repercussions of their mistakes and poor decisions. In making this assertion, the author addresses and constructs his readership as precisely this: young people who are far from innocent, who have agency, who are clever and creative, and who grapple with difficulties in their everyday lives.
Handler's novels were first adapted for the screen in the 2004 film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Brad Silberling), which enjoyed moderate success, although it received some criticism for 'soften[ing] the nasty edges of its source material'. (7) Barry Sonnenfeld, known for his work on black comedies featuring children (such as 1991's The Addams Family), was originally attached to the project as a director and Handler himself initially adapted the screenplay, but both left the project before it was completed. (8) Like many other children's media products of the Harry Potter era, including The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, 2007) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005), the Unfortunate Events film was intended to be the first instalment in a franchise; yet, after multiple setbacks and delays, sequels were eventually abandoned when the child actors became too old to reprise their roles convincingly.
Sonnenfeld and Handler were both directly involved in the Netflix series, as director and head writer, respectively, and Handler's involvement in particular was seized upon as a signifier of authenticity in the marketing and promotion process - playfully, a Netflix media release announcing the initial casting call for the series described Handler as the 'legal, literary and social representative for Lemony Snicket'. (9) Consisting of three seasons and adapting all thirteen books, the Netflix series was launched in 2017, seventeen years after the publication of the first novel. The original teen and tween readers who first encountered it and its sequels upon release are now adults; accordingly, the adaptation opens the story up for new audiences (the current generation of young viewers) and also functions as an object of nostalgia for adults who fondly recall the books. Fidelity to the source material was, therefore, a vital strategy. This in itself is nothing new: most screen adaptations are haunted by the question of fidelity, and media makers who adapt novels must ask themselves how they can preserve the precious distinctiveness of the original text while also creating something that is distinctive in its own right as a film or television series. For decades, adaptation theorists have argued that an adaptation should not be judged by its fidelity to the source material. (10) However, at a time when adaptation is being used as a strategy to target fan audiences, fidelity is re-emerging as an important issue for media makers. The fans and existing audiences for media properties are the precise reason for the reboot or adaptation being such a safe strategy, so staying true to the tone and spirit of the original, while allowing audiences to partake in the pleasures of subtle infidelity, is key to the success of these products. But what does that mean for media makers and for the young audiences they address? And what might fidelity look like in the context of a streaming television series that adapts a beloved set of children's books?
Like many adaptations of children's books - from The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984) to Inkheart (Iain Softley, 2008) - Netflix's Unfortunate Events celebrates the practice of reading, and this is one of the primary means by which a sense of fidelity or respect for the source text is cultivated. There is a bookishness to the series: we see books in each episode; they are objects of importance in the narrative and in the set design. Many of the adult characters have beautiful, lavish libraries that the Baudelaire children look upon hungrily. Meanwhile, books themselves, and the act of reading or writing, often move the plot forward. While taking the children to the cinema in Part 1 of 'The Reptile Room', for example, guardian Monty (Aasif Mandvi) uses a spyglass to decipher, read and write down a secret message hidden in the subtitles. In Part 2 of 'The Bad Beginning', Violet subverts Olaf's plot to marry her by signing the marriage documents with her left hand instead of her right. In the same episode, Klaus spends a sleepless night reading law books in an effort to stop the marriage. The children often read alone, and this is presented as a means of resistance to adult power. In this way, Unfortunate Events exists as a rare thing: a television series that nurtures and encourages a generation of young readers.
At the same time, the series is very aware of itself as streaming television. Each book except the last (which get its own standalone episode) is adapted as two roughly-fifty-minute episodes, the implication being that even families will binge-watch and are likely to view at least two episodes in one sitting. An interview with Handler indicates that the series was written with an awareness of the multiple ways in which audiences might view the text:
If you've been in school for 10 days and your parents are letting you watch episode three now, what does that look like? Or you went out with your friends over the weekend and now it's Sunday night and you're ready to watch a bunch of Net Rix, what do you need to be replugged into the story ? If you're watching it all in a row, what makes it not annoying? (11)
This keen awareness of the audience is a denning feature of the books, too: in the original series, tricky words and concepts are explained by the narrator, whose dry voice speaks directly to children reading alone but might also be embodied by parents reading to their children. A distinct mode of reading is imagined by the books, as is a distinct reader: the intelligent, curious child who is not afraid to engage with dark and gloomy stories. The TV series, in turn, imagines multiple viewers and multiple viewing contexts, but a distinct viewing mode underpins all of this: viewers of Unfortunate Events, whomever they may be and however they may be watching, are imagined as children who enjoy the thrill of not looking away when bad things happen to characters on screen. Even adult audiences are manoeuvred into this viewing position and invited to watch as children, identifying with the child protagonists and being entertained by the villainy, stupidity or tragic fates of the adult characters.
In order to successfully reach fan audiences while creating a product that is entertaining in its own right, adapting media makers must attend to the brand identity of the original text, enlivening its distinctive qualities and connotations within a new medium. In other words, the creative team behind the Netflix series needed to faithfully adapt not just the 'unfortunate events' that befall the characters, but also the very act of inviting young audiences to enjoy these miserable occurrences. While despicable adults and the suffering of young protagonists are defining features of many key works of children's literature (such as the Harry Potter series, or Roald Dahl's Matilda), the distinctiveness of the Unfortunate Events series lies in its recognition of the pleasures involved in these fictional representations of dark events. These satisfactions are acknowledged through the narrator's very denial of them: Snicket constantly warns his readers to stop reading, but, as he does so, a sense of secret pleasure is constructed. 'I wish that I could somehow change the circumstances of this story for you,' the narrator tells his readers in The Reptile Room:
Even as I sit here, safe as can be and so very far from Count Olaf, I can scarcely bear to write another word. Perhaps it would be best if you shut this book right now and never read the rest of this horrifying story. (12)
Such invitations to 'shut the book' and exit the story are repeated throughout the series. Yet the underlying invitation is to read on, precisely because the story is so dark and thrilling. This distinctive feature of the books is beautifully transformed and performed in the theme song that accompanies the opening titles of the Netflix series. Here, the narrator implores us to 'look away': the televisual equivalent of shutting the book. This invitation to 'look away' asks us to think about our position as viewers who enjoy sad or dark tales. It also references the coping strategies that young audiences are known to employ when watching scary material - strategies that include covering or shutting their eyes, hiding behind a pillow or peering through half-closed fingers. (13) Looking away, after all, does not mean walking away or turning the TV off altogether. I watched the full three seasons of Unfortunate Events with my two primary-school-aged children, and my youngest boy did indeed 'look away' at one point: when one of the few decent and competent adult characters, Olivia Caliban (Sara Rue), was fed to the lions in Part 2 of 'The Carnivorous Carnival'. When I asked my son after this episode whether the show was too scary, he assured me that he wanted to keep watching, confident in his ability to know precisely when he, as an individual viewer, would need to 'look away'. This faithful re-creation of the books' 'stop reading' message, and the humour and knowingness in which that message is steeped, is also performed in the promotion of the Netflix series: for example, in the lead-up to the release of Season 3, viewers were urged via a Twitter post to 'drop your streaming devices into a pond' rather than watch the tragic conclusion to the Baudelaires' tale. (14)
Alongside fidelity, adaptation involves transformation - a story must be transformed when it is adapted, and media makers must be faithful not just to the original text but also to the qualities of the new medium. Exploring some of the differences between book and TV versions of Unfortunate Events, we learn much about how the creative team behind the Netflix series undertook this transformation project. One such difference is the prominent presence of Lemony Snicket himself in the TV series. An unseen narrator in the book series who often disappears into the story he tells, Snicket - played by Patrick Warburton, who maintains a distinctively dry voice and an expression of dogged misery - is an imposing physical presence on screen. His appearances are laced with humour; he pops up in odd locations, often wearing bizarre costumes, and speaks directly to audiences, unobserved by the other characters. For the makers of the Netflix series, the Snicket character has been a means of embodying and performing the dry narration that is a key feature of the books: a way of achieving authenticity by preserving and yet also transforming the distinctiveness of the storytelling voice. But the strategy of direct-to-camera address is also an embrace of the new medium and a response to one of the things that television does best: speak to its audiences in an intimate and immediate way. It is perhaps no accident that direct-to-camera address was a distinctive feature of Netflix's first original series, House of Cards, and has arguably become a part of the streaming provider's own brand identity.
We can also recognise in Netflix's Unfortunate Events many of the hallmarks of 'complex' TV drama. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, television writers 'redefined narrative norms', (15) and what media theorist Jason Mittell refers to as 'complexity' emerged as a new storytelling mode in contrast to both the episodic quality of traditional television storytelling and the narrative logic of classical Hollywood cinema. A complex TV drama will usually offer its audiences a large cast of characters, a detailed world, emotionally complex themes and 'drillability', (16) a textual richness that invites dedicated viewers to drill down into each episode and investigate particular plot points further. In this way, complex narratives assume a level of commitment on behalf of the viewer, and reward dedicated rather than erratic viewing. We find many of these features at work in the Netflix adaptation of Unfortunate Events. Even though the books are deeply complex in their own way, there are additional complexities to the TV series: adult characters who were confined to one book play larger and more ongoing roles in the adaptation, while the mystery at the heart of the story - the secret organisation V.F.D. and its troubled history - is explored earlier and more fully in the Netflix series, in keeping with complex TV drama's propensity for world-building. Such narrative complexity was largely absent from the film adaptation of Unfortunate Events, which sought to simplify the narrative by incorporating three books into a single 108-minute experience. In this sense, the detailed narrative of the book series finds a better home in the Netflix adaptation, which allows the story to unfold over three seasons and twenty-five episodes, and in which the conventions of complex TV drama encourage the sort of 'forensic fandom' (17) that a thirteen-part book series deserves. This sense that the book series is a 'good match' for the television adaptation is playfully acknowledged in Part 1 of 'The Reptile Room', when Olaf turns to the camera and informs the audience with a smirk that he doesn't like movies and much prefers 'longform television'.
The Netflix series is also imbued with a playful intertextuality. While the books could almost be described as taking place in a cultural vacuum, with little to no acknowledgement of other cultural, literary or media products, each episode of the TV series contains numerous references to other screen texts. For example, in Part 2 of 'The Slippery Slope', little Sunny proclaims 'Rosebud!' when she pushes a sledge off a cliff - a reference to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). It can be argued that these intertextual references are just for adults, part of an attempt to target a family audience and offer some moments of knowingness that only adult viewers will enjoy. However, it can also be argued that these flickers of intertextuality might be moments of learning. Young viewers might be curious about why Sunny yells 'Rosebud', and adult viewers might be prompted to explain the reference to them. This, again, is a subtle acknowledgement of the conversational, casual and domestic context within which TV products have typically been consumed. In this way, Unfortunate Events introduces young audiences to the practice of TV viewing, the conventions of complex TV drama and the intricate cultural contexts within which such stories are located. Interestingly, intertextual references are also used in the adaptation as a world-building device, drawing attention to events and revelations in future episodes, and even to Handler's other works. For example, in Part 1 of 'The Bad Beginning', we see Snicket wandering through a network of underground tunnels as he narrates, passing numerous signs bearing the names of characters yet to be encountered. Elsewhere, the often-repeated phrase 'that's the wrong question' is a playful reference to Handler's quartet of books entitled All the Wrong Questions, which depict the adventures of Snicket as a child. Offered as rewards for fans, these references may also act as devices for engagement, encouraging curiosity in viewers who are unfamiliar with the source material.
Research indicates that children are increasingly disinclined to watch child-specific programming, which is often neglected in favour of family-friendly content that children can watch with parents or older siblings. (18) This has led to family programming and the development of television content with intergenerational appeal becoming a key strategy not just for commercial broadcast television but also for streaming and subscription-video-on demand services like Netflix. (19) Unfortunate Events is an example of this; yet, as an adaptation, it is also a reminder that stories are complex and alchemical. They shift, and are transformed, and cross media boundaries; they can be retold not just in different ways, but in different spaces. There can be multiple versions of the same story; and, indeed, some of these multiple versions may be fan-made rather than created by industry. An awareness of this multiplicity can be part of the pleasures of knowing and understanding a story. Carefully crafted and attentive to the needs and habits of young viewers, Netflix's Unfortunate Events presents itself as an intelligent adaptation, rather than a mindless product of the 'screen-adaptation machine', (20) and this will no doubt be an important feature of Netflix's own brand identity as the streaming provider continues to reboot, rework and adapt cultural products in an effort to reach the elusive 'family audience'.
This article has been refereed.
Dr Erin Hawley is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Tasmania's Media School. She has written about a range of topics within the field of children s media, including children s horror, eco-pedagogy and the transformative strategies at work in children s news.
(1) See David Fear, 'What Do We Want from The Lion King and Disney's Live-action Remakes?', Rolling Stone, 19 July 2019, <https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/the-lion-king-aladdin-mulan-disney-live-aetion-859487/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(2) Siobhan O'Flynn, 'Epilogue', in Linda Hutcheon with O'Flynn, A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd edn, Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2013, p. 180.
(3) Tasha Robinson, 'Films like The House with a Clock in Its Walls Are Poisonous to Kids' Cinema', The Verge, 23 September 2018, <https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/23/17893036/house-with-a-clock-in-its-walls-review-film-jack-black-cate-blanchett-eli-roth>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(4) Sam Wollaston, 'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Review - Fabulous Steampunk Fun', The Guardian, 13 January 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/jan/l3/lemony-snickets-a-series-of-unfortunate-events-review-netflix>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(5) Ben Travers, 'A Series of Unfortunate Events Review: Season 3 Serves Up a Righteous and Resplendent Ending', IndieWire, 1 January 2019, <https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/netflix-series-of-unfortunate-events-season-3-review-spoilers-l20203l465/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(6) 'A Series of Unfortunate Events: Season 1', Rotten Tomatoes, <https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/a_series_of_unfortunate_events/s01>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(7) 'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events', Rotten Tomatoes, <https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lemony_snicket>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(8) Tom Eames, 'Lemony Snicket Director Barry Sonnenfeld Says the 2004 Movie Was Too Obsessed with Jim Carrey', Digital Spy, 12 January 2017, <https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/ustv/a8l8837/lemony-snicket-barry-sonnenfeld-interview-netflix/>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(9) 'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Announces Worldwide Casting Call for Key Roles in Upcoming Netflix Original Series', media release, Netflix, 3 December 2015, <https://media.netflix.com/en/press-releases/lemony-snickets-a-series-of-unfortunate-events-announces-worldwide-casting-call-for-key-roles-in-upcoming-netflix-original-series>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(10) See Deborah Cartmell & Imelda Whelehan, Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2010.
(11) Kaitlyn Tiffany, 'How Netflix Made A Series of Unfortunate Events, Its First Great TV for Families', The Verge, 13 January 2017, <https://www.theverge.com/2017/1/13/14266208/netflix-a-series-of-unfortunate-events-interview-daniel-handler>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(12) Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room, HarperCollins, New York, 2007 , p. 85.
(13) David Buckingham, Moving Images: Understanding Children's Emotional Reponses to Television, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1996, p. 130.
(14) A Series of Unfortunate Events official account, Twitter post dated 31 December 2018, <https://twitter.com/unfortunate/status/l079424207686l97248>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(15) Jason Mittell, 'Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television', The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58, Fall 2006, p. 29.
(16) Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, New York University Press, New York and London, 2015, p. 288.
(17) ibid., p. 288.
(18) Australian Communications and Media Authority, Children's Television Viewing and Multi-screen Behaviour: Analysis of 2005-16 OzTAM Audience Data and 2017 Survey of Parents, Carers and Guardians, August 2017, p. 12, <https://www.acma.gov.au/-/media/Community-Broadcasting-and-Safeguards/Research/PDF/Childrens-television-viewing-and-multi-screen-behaviour-pdf.pdf>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(19) See Ashley Rodriguez, 'Netflix's Former Head of Kids Programming Explains How Family Shows Stop Subscribers from Canceling, and Who the Major Streaming Buyers Are Today', Business Insider, 21 August 2019, <https://www.businessinsider.com/netflix-former-kids-exec-on-moonbug-streaming-tv-battle-2019-8>, accessed 4 October 2019.
(20) Robinson, op. cit.
EDUCATORS MAY ASK:
What pleasures does the Unfortunate Events TV series offer fans of the book series?
Does the TV series encourage curiosity about the book series?
In the opening titles, what do the words look away' really mean?
Is 'looking away' a valid choice? If we choose not to look away, what are the pleasures involved?