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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: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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