The critically-acclaimed books became a widely-derided film – in our new series we investigate the cultural anomalies that we hold dear
Why should a pleasure be “guilty” if we enjoy it? “Guilt Tripping” is a new series in which writers talk about why they love something – be it a film, book, drink, whatever – that the world makes them feel guilty for loving. To kick “Guilt Tripping” off I’m writing about the 2004 film “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”. It was a hard decision considering every single thing I hold dear to me is considered shit by most people, but it was the first film I ever felt bad for secretly enjoying. So we’ll start here.
In 2001, not unlike in 2017, I was nerdy, weird, and obsessive. For the most part it was my obsession with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events that occupied my every waking thought; reading it, hanging out on forums, developing theories, and writing very, very unfortunate ripoffs of it. The series, which was about three orphans who have to escape the clutches of a Bad Man who wants their fortune, was darker and smarter than anything else aimed at kids my age. It was complex, funny, and sold to me on the basis that it was so horrible and so bleak that I shouldn’t read it. So, of course, I did. Around this time, I wasn’t really into films yet; someone else chose them, I liked them or I didn’t, and I didn’t think about them outside of those 90 minutes in front of the VCR.
Until 2002, when word started circulating that the thing most precious to me was being adapted for the big screen. I clung to every shred of information about it – who was directing, why Jim Carrey was shaving his head, how many books would be in the film. I wanted it to be one, like Harry Potter. It was not. But it was the first film I’d really wanted to see, the first one that I had expectations for. High expectations. And, in the cinema on the first day it opened, I fucking hated it. “They messed up the order! The kids were annoying! Klaus didn’t wear his glasses, which would mean if there ever was another film, the fourth book would make no sense!” I cried to my friends, who were 11 and did not care. I left furious that I’d been given a weak, kitschy iteration of my favourite thing on earth. It was actually for children, and the reason I liked the books so much in the first place was because they felt as if they were not.
But rather than leaving it there and moving on like a normal child, I was determined to love it. I had wasted far too much time and energy on it over the last two years, so I vowed to give it a second chance. When nobody would take me back to the cinema to reanalyse it, I didn’t give up; I spent days downloading a pirate copy that was filmed on a handheld camera. It was horrible quality, but I had to watch it again. I forced myself to see it as separate to the series, and with that in mind, I laughed a little more. Then, for whatever reason, I spent a few more days rewatching it. And something funny happened: I started to truly love it.
A Series of Unfortunate Events wasn’t universally despised. It was the highest-grossing film under the Nickelodeon banner until 2010. Empire called it an “impressive adaptation that's always smart, even if it's rarely spectacular”, giving it four stars. It holds a healthy 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Harry Potter comparisons were inevitable, and for the most part, people said that it was better than the early films in the franchise. It did, however, draw some criticisms – mostly for feeling rushed, being goofier than the dark, blackly comic books, and for Jim Carrey’s perceived over-acted Count Olaf. Roger Ebert, who mostly praised the film, said that Carrey was “over the top”. Entertainment Weekly said that “Carrey's biggest threat is that he'll never stop clowning around”, and the Hollywood Reporter said that it demonstrated “what happens when you take a clever idea and run it into the ground”. Even R.L. Stine said very recently that “a really horrible movie can ruin a book franchise, look what happened to the Lemony Snicket books”.
While reviewers were more balanced, it is really hated by scorned fans of the books who never gave it a second chance. I was them once, too; I resented its unfaithfulness, its episodic nature, the finer plot points and gags that were lost in shoving three books into one movie. That hate was reignited earlier this year, when the Netflix adaptation was released. The implication was that it could right the perceived wrongs of the “disappointing” film, and once again, the conversation about just how horrible Silberling’s iteration was was reignited on fan forums. When I mention that I love the 2004 film, my mentions fill with people, adult Lemony Snicket fans, who still feel scandalised by the adaptation.
Most fan criticisms of the film, as mine did, centre on all the ways that it is not the books. And it’s not! It’s sillier, faster, it misses a lot of tiny jokes and hints and mysteries. It looks like a Tim Burton film. It feels like a musical. I get that, but the more I watched it, the more I realised it couldn’t be the series. The film had to cram in the action of three books, not scare young kids, and keep adults entertained. It did that. Jude Law’s narration as Lemony Snicket stops the film from losing the fourth-wall breaking devices of the book. And Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf, while initially jarring and maybe more zany than you’d expect for a man who actively pursues and abuses children, is legitimately funny. The goofy comedy isn’t a huge departure: the books are funny! Drily, darkly so, but Daniel Handler himself has recognised the “high camp” possibilities of the series. Most importantly, like the books, the film is capable of switching from funny to tragic in an instant. With its comedy combined with a Thomas Newman score and gothic aesthetic, the film captured the dismalness of the books without being completely miserable. And, I mean, it’s a series about orphans being abused repeatedly. That wasn’t easy.
Since 2004, because I am still very much the weird, obsessive person I was then, I have watched it maybe once a month. I do not get bored. The camp humour mixed with devastating gut punches about grief and family never gets old or less impactful. It is a constant in my life. I watch it when I am sad, whenever it’s on TV, when I want to laugh or feel safe. I watched it the first night that I moved away from home. When my sister went into hospital. The night my dog died, I showed up at a friend’s house sobbing and she silently put it on the TV. By the time it was over, I was almost laughing more than I was crying. I know every single beat by heart, and it is always comforting, in part because of the ridiculous speed of it; it doesn’t give me time to think about anything else.
There will never be a perfect adaptation that will please everyone. Especially of a series that is so bookish. The charm of A Series of Unfortunate Events lies partly in that it’s verbose and referential, and that can be difficult if not impossible to translate to film. Under tough circumstances, Brad Silberling and the cast managed to make the film very sad, pretty dark, and consistently funny. I am still holding out for the adaptation that the film and the Netflix series were not, because I am human. I still want something that really captures Daniel Handler’s work and weaves in all the in-jokes and nudges and mysteries. But until then, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was a good effort at tackling an impossible project. You don’t have to love it. But I do, and yeah, that’s maybe just because I now have that warm nostalgia mixed with Stockholm Syndrome from watching it upwards of 200 times in 13 years. It hurts when someone takes your childhood and twists it to fit into a Hollywood-shaped hole. I get that. I felt that, and you can hate it. Just let me love it, and forgive me if I watch it again this weekend.
Lead illustration by Owain Anderson