Books — The Series Of Unfortunate Events

 

The Series Of Unfortunate Events

By Amy Diaz

For fans of the most-horrible tales of woe

Lemony Snicket is an improbable trailblazer.

Which here means that teaching vocabulary and sibling loyalty is an impressive feat for a series of dark stories written by a nonexistent author.

Snicket — himself a woebegone man who chases the sad story of the Baudelaire orphans through, eventually, 13 books — reluctantly tells shocking tales of dead guardians, missing friends, false murder charges and dozens of instances of children in all forms of peril. He recounts each incident mournfully and sorrowfully, unwilling to give us the horrible news but unable to stop himself. And along the way he tosses off a plethora of new words and phrases, defined with the most deadpan tongue-in-cheek accuracy. He introduces irrelevant facts to soften, as he says, the blow of the terrible facts of the Baudelaires’ lives. And he speaks of his own brushes with danger, discomfort and discord over the loss of a shadowy love interest named Beatrice.

Which means, all you Lemony lovers, that his heart is already taken.

The Series of Unfortunate Events books — 11 of which are on shelves now, leaving two more to come — get a lot of comparisons to the Harry Potter series. But unlike the serious struggle between good and evil portrayed in the Potter books, Lemony Snicket’s series does not take itself seriously. From the tone of mock horror to the over-the-top pomposity with which Snicket describes his own perils to uncover the Baudelaires’ story, these books all but dare you not to laugh at each awful turn of events.

No moral complexity here — we unquestionably root for the children, who are saddled with adults that are either stupid, evil or both. The Baudelaires are the only aspects of the story that are ever allowed to be normal in scope — all other characters and situations bob into view like grotesque parade floats, inflated to the near-popping point with ridiculousness. Even Snicket (who is played in real life by the rather mild Daniel Handler) gets the Snicket treatment, with every one of his pains described in outsized terms.

The stories are so colorfully told, with the evil glee of a pre-Disney Grimms’ Fairy Tale, that they blossom with their own elaborate mental images — making them both perfect and perilous for filmmakers. When the movie version of the first three volumes comes to screens on Friday, it will have the impossible-to-top images created by Handler’s words to live up to — even Jim Carrey can’t beat the Tim Burton-esque Count Olaf created by Brett Helquist’s sparse illustrations.  And how can any Jude Law voiceover match the low-moan narration by Snicket on the page?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie is doomed to Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat-level disaster. The movie will succeed, or at least get a fighting chance to succeed, if it remembers what sets the books apart from other children literature. No enchanting world of magic — Lemony Snicket’s stories are just wicked, ghastly fun.

- Amy Diaz

 
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