In the first part of a miniseries, Skylar and Lokesh discuss the humor, deaths and humorous deaths in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and compare the books to various onscreen adaptations.
Lokesh: Hey school, Journsplit is back with another episode; I am Lokesh.
Skylar: And I am Skylar.
Lokesh: And this will be the first part of the miniseries, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, where we will be covering Books 1, 2 and 3 of the series. Do check out all the previous episodes on our website!
Skylar: In quick summary, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” follows the turbulent lives of the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, after their parents’ mysterious and unexpected deaths. With this sudden turn of events, the children are left to fend for themselves, in the absence of any reliable adult figures, from the clutches of Count Olaf, who continues to haunt them while orchestrating numerous disasters with the help of his accomplices in an attempt to steal their inheritance.
Lokesh: This story was originally released as a series of books between September 1999 and October 2006. It has since received a movie adaptation covering the first three books in December 2004, although its sequels have been discontinued due to bad reception for the first movie, as well as a drama series on Netflix that was aired from January 2017 to January 2019 for 3 seasons.
Skylar: Throughout this series, the writer consistently maintains the books’ dark and whimsical tone through word play, which represents how the world seems to twist on itself each time the Baudelaire children appear to have been saved, only to push them further into peril, along with the literal representations of metaphors that add tension to the plot by cueing the readers in to despair at the following series of unfortunate events.
Lokesh: The audiobooks are especially recommended as a great way to consume the books too, especially as the narrator perfectly fits with the style of the books, being able to play the role of the snarky and charming ‘Lemony Snicket’ who is behind the bleak narration of the Baudelaires’ lives.
Skylar: When describing a word the (typically younger) reader may not be aware of, Lemony Snicket typically uses a dry tone while saying “a word which here means …,” followed by the occasional humorous definition, or one that is relevant only to the events at hand. For example, when he says “plethora – a word which here means too many to list (as in the various dangers of sailing across Lake Lachrymose in a hurricane)”. This adds to the charm of the books, and also immerses the readers into the more serious yet ludicrous world.
Lokesh: Speaking of which, don’t you think the characters are rather whimsical? Sunny is good at biting, Violet is good at inventing, and Klaus is a pro at literature. And we have the typical antagonist and equally odd side characters like Carmelita Spats, Esme Gigi Genevieve Squalor and Mr Poe.
Skylar: Lemony Snicket’s narration and commentary are characteristically cynical and despondent as well. In the blurb for each book, Snicket warns of the misery the reader may experience in reading about the Baudelaires and suggests abandoning the books altogether. It’s odd isn’t it? This just makes readers more curious to read the book. Despite this, there are many instances of comedic relief to punctuate the dark mood. Anyway, we should get back onto track to cover the plot itself.
Lokesh: Yes, let’s dive straight into an oversimplified synopsis. Well, “The Bad Beginning” is the first book in the series. The first book starts with Mr. Poe, the incompetent banker, presenting the children with the news that their parents have most unfortunately passed away in a house fire, and that they are to be shipped away to live with their closest relative, Count Olaf.
Skylar: Here, the book makes a joke on how Mr. Poe mistakenly interprets this to mean the nearest, not the closest in relation to the family. And this, as we know, is the beginning of the misfortune of the Baudelaire orphans.
Lokesh: A major event in this book is when the count, who up to this point has acted neglectful and abusive to the Baudelaire orphans, kidnaps the youngest, Sunny, in order to force the children to partake in his play about a marriage.
Skylar: Through their thirst for knowledge, they deduce that the Count plans to legally marry Violet under the guise of being for a fictitious play, in a ploy to gain full access to the riches left behind by their parents. With quick thinking, the Baudelaires outsmart Count Olaf and prove to Mr Poe that Count Olaf is unfit to be their caregiver. And that’s how the book ends, with a promise of the children being sent to a more suitable caregiver.
Lokesh: In the second book, “The Reptile Room”, the Baudelaires meet their closest living relative, Uncle Monty, a herpetologist who keeps many exotic snakes in his reptile room. Uncle Monty is just about ready to bring the children along to Peru to explore the new types of snakes, when Count Olaf strikes again; this time in disguise of Uncle Monty’s new assistant. Despite the Baudelaires’ insistence in trying to convince Uncle Monty of the truth, he remains stubbornly certain of his assistant simply being a spy looking to steal information about his rare specimens. This ends with Uncle Monty being found dead in the reptile room the following day.
Skylar: With this turn of events, Count Olaf attempts shipping the children off to Peru by himself, while claiming that it had been a venomous snake who has killed Uncle Monty. Meanwhile, his sidekicks from the acting troupe, disguise as doctors to perform a fake autopsy and support this claim.
Lokesh: With no other choice, the Baudelaires must foil Count Olaf’s maniacal plans through Sunny causing a distraction, while Violet lockpicks open the Count’s suitcase, revealing the venom and needles that had been used in Uncle Monty’s murder, as Klaus exposes Count Olaf with scientific evidence. Once again, Count Olaf and his sidekicks are forced to flee from the scene of the crime, leaving the Baudelaire children guardianless, next to be taken in by a different caregiver.
Skylar: Next, we move on to the third book, “The Wide Window”. Here, the children are put under the care of Aunt Josephine, who lives in a house atop a hill overlooking Lake Lachrymose, a lake so large that hurricanes have occurred in that area. Aunt Josephine is afraid of almost everything from her stove exploding while cooking food, to even her welcome mat. Her love of grammar is also evident through her library filled with books on the grammar of the English language.
Lokesh: Someways into the plot of the book, Violet runs into a sailor named ‘Captain Sham’, who she can see is very much just Count Olaf in disguise. However, Aunt Josephine denies any claims from the Baudelaires, instead choosing to fall madly in love with Captain Sham’s charming personality. Once Aunt Josephine’s apparent ‘suicide scene’ is discovered, Count Olaf attempts to claim custody of the children. Not wanting to give in to Count Olaf’s evil plans, Klaus finds a hidden message encoded in Aunt Josephine’s ‘suicide note’ through grammar mistakes that Aunt Josephine would realistically never commit.
Skylar: With this information, the Baudelaires manage to steal a boat from Captain Sham’s boat store near Lake Lachrymose to get to Curdled Cave as a hurricane starts up. They endure the storm and reach the Curdled Cave, where Aunt Josephine (who is alive!) reveals that Count Olaf had forced her to write the ‘suicide note’ before she’d broke the Wide Window to cause them to believe that she’d jumped to her death.
Lokesh: While travelling back through the lake, the Baudelaires are able to signal for help. Unfortunately, only Count Olaf arrives on a ship. After leaving Aunt Josephine to be eaten by the Lachrymose leeches, he brings the children back to the house. Luckily, the children are able to escape when the cliff, along with the house, collapses, causing chaos among the confused adults, not wanting to give in to the evildoers who are after their inheritance while simultaneously losing all faith in Mr. Poe and the law from keeping them safe. And this ends the summary of the plots of these books.
Skylar: Anyway, as we’re on the topic of deaths, are you noticing a common theme regarding the character deaths of these books. They barely brush off each death briefly before moving onto the next incident. Yeah, that’s definitely weird… Perhaps Daniel Handler, the author hopes to portray the children having gone through so many hardships that leaves little time to mourn the deaths of these characters? Or maybe it was meant to symbolise the pitfalls that the adults fall into that the children are meant to learn from and overcome?
Lokesh: I do feel that the books follow a rather strict formula for the plots of these books. The children get a new caregiver, Count Olaf and his crew show up with a plan that will usually involve dead caregivers, the children outsmart the Count, and then they are relocated to a new caregiver only for the cycle to repeat. And happens thrice! I mean, at least the various settings and plot twists, as well as the cunning plans of Count Olaf to regain custody over the children and how he is thwarted are interesting, but aren’t you finding this too repetitive?
Skylar: That may be true… However, there are still many themes in these books that keep you invested and interested in the story, don’t you think? Social commentary is a major element in these books, which often comment on the seemingly inescapable follies of human nature. The books consistently present the Baudelaire children as free-thinking and independent, while the adults around them obey authority and succumb to mob psychology, peer pressure, ambition, and other social ills. A high account is given to learning: those who are “well-read” are often sympathetic characters, while those who shun knowledge are villains. I like how the children are portrayed as wiser than adults for once!
Lokesh: Yes indeed! Additionally, the books have strong themes of moral relativism, as the Baudelaires become more confused during the course of the series about the difference between right and wrong, feeling they have done wicked things themselves and struggling with the question of whether the end justifies the means.
Skylar: Indeed. As an addition, let’s discuss the on screen adaptations of this series, starting with the movie. Interestingly, instead of adapting each of the books into individual films a la Harry Potter, the movie attempts cramming the stories of the first three books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window) into one 108-minute film. It is easy to understand such a decision, given that the series had not been finished yet and adapting 13 books into a franchise following three children (one of them an infant) would have been challenging, financially and creatively, but as a result, it led to many other story changes that many fans would see as a betrayal.
Lokesh: Mhm! For example, the first book ends with Count Olaf’s nefarious marriage plot being foiled by Violet, who cleverly signs the marriage licence with her left hand instead of right, rendering the marriage unlawful, before Olaf threatens the orphans’ lives and escapes. However, this sequence is moved to be the final climax of the trilogy in the film. Instead, The Bad Beginning arc in the movie concludes with Olaf attempting to kill Violet, Klaus, and Sunny shortly after obtaining parental rights to them by trapping them in his car, which is parked on the railroad tracks with a train speedily approaching. The Baudelaires escape by using their skills of invention, reading, and biting to change the track’s direction.
Skylar: Yes! In addition, the movie also throws in a few extra details to give the story a more concrete and upbeat conclusion. As Klaus is searching around Count Olaf’s house searching for a way to stop the marriage from happening, he comes across a device resembling a large magnifying glass built into a wall in his attic that channels sunlight into a beam aimed directly at the Baudelaire house, solving the mystery of the mystery of the children’s parents’ deaths being intentional. After Olaf catches Violet in foiling his scheme, he ensures that she signs the marriage certificate with her right hand, which forces Klaus to use the giant magnifying glass to direct a beam at the marriage certificate, which catches flame.
Lokesh: The narrator aka Lemony Snicket, then happily informs the audience that Count Olaf is successfully arrested, and facing punishment. Meanwhile, Mr. Poe is seen driving Violet, Klaus, and Sunny to the home of their next guardian, which they anticipate with a hopeful attitude. In my opinion, the conclusion of this movie not only provides the story with a more positive and less mysterious ending, but also completely dissipates the film of any real mystery or complexity.
Skylar: Meanwhile on the other hand, the Netflix series chooses to lean further into the mysteries that keep the readers engaged by revealing more interesting details through side plots, such as the VFD assisting the children as well as the mysterious looking glass, while maintaining as faithful to the original plot as possible. This helps catch the interest of newer viewers who would be more invested in following the series while appealing to existing readers of the original book series which is definitely an improvement, being more focused and certain of the story it’s telling over the movie.
Lokesh: Anyways, that’s all for today! Do look out for our next part to the miniseries, where we will be covering books 4 to 8 and discussing a few more themes and trends in this series. We hope you enjoyed this episode! Until next time!
Lokesh and Skylar: Bye!