In Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket books, the three Baudelaire children (Violet, Klaus and Sunny) are cycled through an endless sequence of cruel horrors — baby Sunny is threatened at one point with being dropped from a roof — all concocted by their greedy relation, Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris).
It’s a fiendish, funny, bustling and yet oddly impersonal narrative, as if Charles Dickens from time to time regarded Oliver Twist less as a hapless urchin than a hamster on a wheel.
Netflix’s version, which covers the first four books, preserves some of the 2004 film’s style (a blend of Tim Burton gloom and Amélie twinkle) but has the advantage of being able to indulge in seemingly endless twists and curlicues over its eight episodes, which include numerous intrusions by Patrick Warburton as a mournfully deadpan narrator who is none other than Mr. Snicket.
The books, written in a tone that’s both arch and despairing, with constant digressions that discuss (among other things) correct usage of language, grammar and slang, are probably as close to Nabokov as children’s literature gets. This version lovingly sees to all these details with what you imagine are cold, nervous, thin-fingered hands … possibly long-nailed, ink-stained and emerging from frayed black sleeves.
Even the opening theme, sung by Harris, is self-referentially droll and sinister:
Look away, look away, look away!
This show will wreck your evening, your home life and your day!
Every single episode is nothing but dismay!
So look away, look away, look away!
This is a series in which anyone who feels as if he or she is standing on the edge of a precipice usually is; in which a lake named Lachrymose contains deadly leeches that have already made a meal of Ike, a Baudelaire in-law fondly remembered by his widow for his ability to whistle while eating crackers; and in which quite a few characters loose their free will to a hypnotist named Dr. Orwell.
Is it too dark? Not really — no darker, anyway, than Harry Potter, The Addams Family or those passages in Winnie-the-Pooh in which Eeyore attempts to articulate his depression. The sufferings of the Baudelaire children (as well as Lemony Snicket) are depicted as unfolding in a world in which such things are to be regretted and yet regarded as blithely inconsequential.
Come to think of it, this is the rare family entertainment that will be more distressing to parents than to their children. And perhaps ought to be.
The one thing the Netflix version doesn’t quite have that the generally unfortunate movie version did is a sufficiently horrible Count Olaf. Harris is always nimble and flippantly funny, very good at capturing Olaf’s dismissive sarcasm and rather casual sadism. “The shampoo is not tear-free,” he informs his wards as he shows them the only bathroom they’ll be allowed to use in his large, dank home. “If anything, it encourages tears.” He pins the dialogue as cleanly as a toothpick spearing an olive. But Jim Carrey’s Olaf operated on a grander, more grotesque scale that threw a longer, deeper and more villainous shadow over the story. It was a hammy performance, but Olaf himself, with his love of acting, theater, costume and disguise, is a ham, too.
The part calls for self-compounding ham.
Then again, the new Unfortunate Events preserves one of the books’ most haunting sentences, spoken here by the Baudelaires’ panicked aunt (Alfre Woodard), who’s afraid of everything, including real estate agents:
“It’s a curious thing, the death of a loved one. It’s like climbing the stairs to your room in the dark, thinking that there’s one more stair than there is. Your foot falls through the air, and there’s a sickly feeling of dark surprise.”
Klaus agrees, as any orphan child would. “That’s it exactly.”
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events begins streaming Friday on Netflix.