If you were a child, young adult or parent in the early ’00s, you were probably aware of the lushly bound, gleefully grim book series written by the improbably named Lemony Snicket, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Suffused with a winking, enchantingly bookish absurdity but shaded by the nightmarish villainy seen in classic fairy tales, the books followed the newly orphaned Baudelaire children as they struggled to stay ahead of their uncle, the evil Count Olaf, the talentless leader of a theater troupe hellbent on seizing their late parents’ fortune.
Published between 1999 and 2006, the books sold more than 65 million copies worldwide and made a household name of Snicket — better known as the literary alter ego of author Daniel Handler.
Though the books already yielded a big-screen adaptation by Paramount Pictures in 2004, the playfully dark series returns on, appropriately, Friday the 13th with Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Covering the early books over an eight-episode season that features Neil Patrick Harris as well as appearances by Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi and Catherine O’Hara, the show promises to build on the last time Hollywood knocked on Handler’s door.
“At the beginning, it felt a little like getting the old band together because we were sitting at a table saying, ‘What was it we thought was so wonderful that we were going to do? Oh yes, this,’” Handler said, referencing the previous effort to bring the books to the screen. He was reached on a conference call with Harris and the series’ executive producer, Barry Sonnenfeld.
“It’s also a different project, so it’s not as if we dusted off very old blueprints that we had waiting and then presented them. But we had a lot of ideas that didn’t come to fruition,” Handler added.
“Well, Daniel’s being kind,” Sonnenfeld said. “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.”
The first attempt to bring “A Series of Unfortunate Events” to the screen featured Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. In another series of unfortunate events, Handler was fired from the production along with Sonnenfeld, who was his first choice for director. When Netflix approached Handler about the chance to adapt his books into a series — in, ironically, a co-production with Paramount Television — bringing Sonnenfeld back felt natural.
“We even had the same bickering we had many years ago, which was very refreshing,” Handler said.
Once Handler reread his books and finished “being awash in a sea of regret,” he set about adapting his books for the series, which expands on some of the more implied elements while remaining true to the original stories. (He has also started work on a second season, which makes watching the full run of the books on Netflix a possibility.)
“What’s wonderful about the books is it posits that all children are wonderful and capable, and all adults, whether they’re the villains or mean well, are equally ineffectual,” Sonnenfeld said.
Casting Harris gave the duo a fresh starting point that was more consistent with their original vision.
“Neil was much more in sync with our tone than Jim Carrey,” added Sonnenfeld, who also directed four episodes. “Jim’s performance was wonderfully specific and Jim-like, but I think Neil’s performance is much closer to a theatrical — and flat, and funny and scary — way than I think we would have been able to get even if I had directed the Jim Carrey version.”
The idea to cast Harris partly stemmed from Handler seeing his performance as host of the 65th Tony Awards, specifically on the show’s wry opening song, “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”
“It is a musical number that makes fun of musical numbers, but also demonstrates a great love for musical numbers,” Handler said. “I thought that was exactly the kind of sensibility we were looking for in the Snicket books.”
Having Harris in the lead role also allowed the creators to showcase his singing abilities, which are heard both in the occasional musical number for Count Olaf as well as in the opening credits, which features a song that begins with Harris’ dry insistence that the viewer watch something less disturbing while at times singing, in character, the shifts in the episode’s storyline.
“Mr. Sonnenfeld described the plan for the opening credits to me as being like ‘Monday Night Football,’” Handler said. “And then he had to explain to me what ‘Monday Night Football’ was.”
For Harris, who in 2015 was coming off the short-lived NBC variety show “Best Time Ever,” the opportunity to join “A Series of Unfortunate Events” came at a time when he was ready to “take a break from the host act.”
“I’ve always been a big Cirque du Soleil, immersive theater fan, and so coming off ‘Hedwig’ [the 2014 Broadway production of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’], which was another show I had done in New York where I looked nothing like myself, the notion of wearing prosthetics and playing someone who was so unlike me and looking so unlike me, it was kind of the perfect storm,” he said. “A fun-derstorm.”
In Sonnenfeld’s hands, the series has a darkly surreal, out-of-time quality with squat trolleys, elaborately unreal sets and technology that skips between eras with walkie-talkies instead of cellphones and cars that span decades.
With its colorful visual flourishes, the series recalls Sonnenfeld’s work on “Pushing Daisies” and “The Addams Family” as well as “Hudsucker Proxy”-era Coen brothers and the odd-angled gothic of Tim Burton.
“In my mind it’s always just what a child envisions,” Handler said of the show’s look. “And so when you take the trolley someplace when you’re a child you might remember it later and you only picture that it has one car on it. Mr. Poe’s bank looks like where you picture anybody’s dad who goes to work in some corporate environment. That enables us to kind of travel all over the map aesthetically because it’s just what you think of as a child.”
“That sounds so intelligent and on purpose, and I so wish that I could’ve said that,” Sonnenfeld deadpanned.
“Well, if you looked over the pages I sent you before this interview ...” Handler countered with a laugh.
‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’
When: Any time, as of Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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