My parents and teachers discouraged me from reading A Series of Unfortunate Events as a child, so Netflix’s recent adaptation of the novels has given me the chance to encounter this story from a unique vantage point. As an adult reading (and watching) the series for the first time, I’ve come to doubly appreciate the frustration of clever, ingenious children stuck in a world run by overly sensible and clueless grown-ups.
Narrated by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of author Daniel Handler), A Series of Unfortunate Events was originally published in thirteen sequential novels between 1999 and 2006. While many parents were wary of the novels because of mild language and dark themes, others praised the books for their handling of these elements. Though the novels deal heavily with loss, kidnapping, and death, it’s the resourcefulness and adamant hope of the Baudelaire orphans—three children left to fend for themselves in the wake of their parents’ deaths—that takes center stage
The first season of the Netflix series came out last year, starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, a conniving relative in pursuit of the Baudelaire’s inheritance; Patrick Warburton as Snicket, the narrator; and Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith as the Baudelaire children.
Handler, who also wrote many of the episodes, has helped the series maintain the tone of the novels. One of the most striking things about the show, drawn from the books, is its cleverness, a cleverness that has clearly been lost on some adults. A Series of Unfortunate Events offers a sardonic, satirical take on existentialism and rigid, arbitrary ethics, dressed smartly in the wrappings of a children’s book. The novels contain harsh critiques of adults and equally strong praise of children. Consider Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the Baudelaire’s guardian, who repeatedly fails to recognize Count Olaf even though his disguises are absurdly terrible. Though the children tell Mr. Poe again and again that their gym teacher, say, or an interior designer, a detective, a doctor, etc., is actually Count Olaf in disguise, they are always quickly dismissed. We feel exasperated alongside the children at the obliviousness of Mr. Poe, a quality exhibited by many of the other adults in the series.
One of the most striking things about the show is its cleverness, a cleverness that has clearly been lost on some adults.
While the grown-ups are often dull and unimaginative, the Baudelaire orphans and their eventual friends, the Quagmire triplets, are innovative, resourceful, and mind-bogglingly shrewd. Oldest sibling Violet (Weissman) is an inventor and able to repair, tweak, or construct mechanical devices to help her siblings escape from the clutches of Count Olaf. Middle brother Klaus (Hynes) is surprisingly well-read for a young boy; a researcher at heart, he is always able to find crucial answers in books. Sunny (Smith), the Baudelaire toddler, has extra-human biting strength (bear with me) and is perhaps the most fascinating character. In both the novels and the Netflix series, Sunny’s babbling is “translated,” revealing clever satire, phrases in foreign languages, and even social and political commentary. (At one point she answers a question with one word: “Scalia.”)
Though this series often functions as a theater of the absurd, underneath the surface you’ll find a thoughtful reflection on the nature of childhood, one that mirrors Jesus’ comments in Matthew 19. This passage, though brief, describes Jesus’ welcoming response when he and his disciples are in Judea and residents bring their children forward to be blessed. They are “rebuked” by the disciples, but Jesus responds, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Heinrich Meyer’s commentary on this passage interprets the exchange this way: “Jesus cannot consent to see the children turned away from him; for, so far from their being too insignificant to become the objects of his blessing, he contemplates in their simplicity and innocence that character which those who are to share in his kingdom must acquire through being converted and becoming as little children.”
If Christ did not overlook the value of children, neither should we, something we’re reminded of by A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Baudelaire orphans are seen as inherently valuable and possess wisdom and hopefulness that is simply over the heads of their adult counterparts. When did we adults become so simple-minded? When did we become unable to see through the disguises of the Count Olafs in our lives? When did we cease to create, to invent, to experience wonderment and joy?
Though the Baudelaires experience a life that can only be described as “unfortunate,” they maintain a childlike joy and perseverance. When faced with seemingly impossible circumstances, they remain loyal to family and friends and are unafraid to challenge adults when they see those adults are limited or boxed-in. They even rescue them when they’re in danger.
I’d encourage parents, teachers, and friends to not only let the children in your lives watch this series, but to watch it with them. Maybe you will be, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”