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How A Series Of Unfortunate Events went from a children’s book to a postmodern masterpiece

On Friday the Thirteenth, 13 years since the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s series (of 13 books) was released, eight episodes dropped on Netflix. How did we get here?

I’m sorry to say that the article you are about to read is extremely unpleasant. It concerns an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children, sadly brought to public attention by a morally reprehensible (a phrase which here means, “having little or no regard for the traumatic effect their work might have on an unsuspecting audience”) streaming service. Yes, it is my sad duty to inform you that A Series of Unfortunate Events has finally come to Netflix, and the story of the Baudelaire orphans once again haunts our screens.

On Friday 13 January, 13 years since the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s series (of 13 books) hit cinemas, Netflix released eight episodes of their TV adaptation. Critics are hailing it as a success, with many commenting that it triumphs where the film adaptation failed. So how did we get here?

The early 2000s were dominated by a single book-to-film franchise: the Harry Potter series. Back then, it was less clear whether Harry Potter was a singular phenomenon or the beginning of an industry-changing trend, and movie studios were extremely keen to replicate the franchise’s financial success: lots of children’s books were wracked for their potential to become blockbuster hits. For Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, this started before his books even existed.

“The books were optioned for the movies before they were published,” he told IGN back in 2004. “I honestly didn’t think anything was going to happen with these books and I certainly didn’t think anything was going to happen in terms of a movie.”

So what happened with the 2004 Brad Silberling film? “I was really involved in the beginning and then I wasn’t involved by the time they were actually filming,” said Handler, regarding his removal from the scriptwriting process. As he revealed in rambling, Snicket-ish style, the development of the film went into “crisis” as the original director Barry Sonnenfeld either quit or was fired, “depending on who you ask”, and that afterwards, neither he nor the film company felt confident that he could continue as scriptwriter. In the end, Handler was “disappointed” that “very little of what I wrote is in the film.”

The film was, of course, intended to be the first of a franchise (the clue is really in the word “series”), but, like The Golden Compass and The Seeker, the story never gained enough momentum – or box office revenue – to continue.

Over a decade later, Netflix approached Handler about a new adaptation – one that he had more involvement in, and that would be more formally indebted to the structure of the book series. Handler told Variety, “Netflix approached me and said, ‘We think episodic television might be the better way to do this and we can structure it in the following way.’ That made a lot of sense to me, so that was attractive to me.”

They also got Sonnenfeld back as director, who is more blunt about their motiviations for returning to the project, telling the Los Angeles Times, “I think, for both Daniel and myself, in many ways it was profound and total revenge. It’s been a great finishing of unfinished business.” Then Handler had the idea of getting the actor Neil Patrick Harris on board: “I saw him, I don’t know, a few years ago, perform It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore as the opening of the Tonys. It’s such a beautiful tribute to musical theater while mocking it with some of the cheapest jokes imaginable. I thought, ‘This is exactly what we want to do. This would be perfect.’”

The episodic format allows for Unfortunate’s combination of predictability (the children invariably find an unsuitable guardian, before Count Olaf infiltrates their new home in disguise, dispensing with their carers and threatening to take them in under this new persona) and unpredictability (plot details hinge on deals on limes, statues who are actually people, misplaced commas and animals with misnomers). Sonnenfeld seems to instinctively understand the look and feel of the Unfortunate world. And Harris’s performance is chaotic and brilliant, by turns sincere and ironic, and the cast here (which includes Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby and Catherine O’Hara) tops the film (even if that did have Meryl Streep).

The finished product is far more faithful to the Snicket series, which is defined by Snicket’s dense voice. The books were thick with literary allusions (including but not limited to Dante, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Orwell and JD Salinger), and this series includes discussions of the themes and metaphors of Herman Melville, Haruki Murakami and F Scott Fitzgerald. But they are most frequently self-referential: Snicket constantly draws attention to his writing process.

Where the 2004 film merely nodded to Snicket’s presence with cameos from Jude Law, the Netflix programme fully engages with the postmodern ideas of metanarrative that make the original books so memorable. Patrick Warburton plays Lemony Snicket with a raised eyebrow, framing each episode with woeful warnings to switch off the TV, interjecting with plot spoilers and esoteric definitions. There is a whole sequence devoted to explaining, and then demonstrating, the concept of dramatic irony. Another scene sees Snicket step in to clarify that what we are watching is a flashback, “a word which here means ‘taken place during the events of the last episode, shortly after the Baudelaire fire, and during the Baudelaire children’s unfortunate stay with the Poe family’”.

There are hints at the concerns of “television executives”, and Snicket sometimes physically grabs the camera and pulls it away from horrifying events on screen. Aunt Josephine implores the children to close their eyes, “as if we’re watching some on-screen entertainment that’s too scary for our age!”, while Count Olaf has lines like “As an actor, I think live theatre is a much more powerful medium than, say, streaming television” and “In all honesty I prefer long-form television to the movies; it’s so much convenient to consume entertainment from the comforts of your own home.”

These nods to the Netflix format are simply much funnier than Jude Law bashing away at a typewriter, which is how the film tries to capture Snicket’s voice.

There are also sly winks to the voracious Unfortunate reader. Nods to sugar bowls, harpoon guns, Very Fresh Dill, and “the world’s most threatening fungus” will have increased significance for fans of the book series, as will seemingly innocuous phrases like, “I didn’t realise this was a sad occasion,” and “your parents wanted to raise you in a quiet world”.

All this and more contributes to Netflix’s success – but it also might be a question of timing. A Series of Unfortunate Events are books for children plagued by a sense that the world really is relentlessly terrible. “When you’re a child,” says Handler, “if you begin to sense that the entire world is a strange performative sham, you don’t lose that sense when you’re an adult.” Perhaps the world has never felt more like a strange performative sham than in the last year, and Unfortunate’s combination of incompetent bureaucracies, dishonest press, apathetic adults and a tyrannical narcissistic villain who absurdly triumphs again and again seems to hit the spot.

But how close was this version to Handler’s dream adaptation? On the topic of a sequel to the feature film, he told the AV Club back in 2005:

“I have this fantasy that the second movie would begin with a brief statement by all of the young actors who had played the children in the first movie, explaining how it had ruined their lives, so we would catch up with Emily Browning drinking heavily in the back of a burlesque bar, and maybe Liam Aiken would be living underneath a bridge, and then instead of the twins who played Sunny, we would just try to find the oldest woman in the world, and get an interview with her sitting in a trailer park.”

So. Close enough?

***

Now listen to a discussion of A Series of Unfortunate Events on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.