With the Netflix adaptation imminently hitting our screens, it seems an apt time to be introduced its source material; the book saga, A Series of Unfortunate Events, written Daniel Handler in the guise of the mysterious ‘Lemony Snicket’. The series has sold over 65 million copies worldwide, and is available in 41 languages; but what exactly is it about?
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a thirteen part series, detailing the lives of the Baudelaire orphans. After the parents of Sunny, Klaus and Violet Baudelaire perish in a mysterious structural arson attack on their home, the children find themselves orphaned, and sent off to live with a variety of their obscure, random and, more often than not, mad relations and associates. They range from a reptile-keeping uncle, to a band of carnival freaks, and even villagers obsessed with birds. At the same time, they must constantly try and battle the menacing force that is the nefarious Count Olaf, an eccentric and sinister figure who only desires to gain the Baudelaire’s immense wealth and fortune when they come of age.
The real success of the series is how it manages to blend tragedy with comedy. From the outside, the omniscient and omnipresent narrative voice at times revels in the misery of the Baudelaire children, simply because it is entertaining. The hyperbolic language which frequently describes characters does not paint an accurate representation of any human whatsoever, but moreover is a caricature of ironic and clever stereotyping, with just the right hint of comic absurdity. Count Olaf’s band of assorted thugs, criminals and schemers are great examples of this, and as the series progresses, their menace increases only with their ridiculousness.
Admittedly, this is very clever, as it encourages readers to consider how far they would be willing to go to survive. In this anachronistic and timeless world, the Baudelaires’ invention and intellect serve as much greater weapons than brute force. Handler enjoys creating his own words and translations, whether that be creating ‘baby talk’ for Sunny, or a ridiculous insult for one of the terrible guardians – my personal favourite is Carmelita Spats’ ‘cakesniffers’. It has the right level of humour to cause you to smile, without trivialising the narrative.
A Series of Unfortunate Events could, at best, be described as having a bittersweet ending, and the final novels in particular tread the line of good vs. evil to the absolute maxim. Although they are dressed up as childish fiction, they often contain complex social and psychological commentary, dealing with peer-pressure, ambition, loyalty, and mob-mentality. The series does live up to its label of being a satire of gothic literature, and it even includes its own claudestine secret society, V.F.D., which grows in importance as the novels progress. What exactly does it stand for? It surely can’t be Very Fancy Doilies, right?
Although the thirteen main novels which make up the series are not particularly difficult reads, nor very long (usually around 200-300 pages), reading the series with an older mindset allows one to spot many more allusions and complex intellectual humour interwoven by its fictional compiler Lemony Snicket. The obvious allusions usually come from the names of characters – Mr Poe referencing poet Edgar Allen, for example – but there are many more which sneak under the radar. Monty Python references are also very common too, adding a comic wit to an otherwise confusing and dark tale.
From the Bad Beginning, all the way through to The End, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a rarity in that it keeps you guessing and page-turning all the way to the finish. With the colourful ensemble of characters who range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and a complex yet well-developed plot which underpins the narrative, it is well worth a look, even just for a casual read. Just one look at the self-deprecating, ironically ambiguous blurbs, which urge you not to read the books for fear of disappointment or traumatisation, is entertaining in its own right.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is published by Harper Collins in the UK. Its latest TV adaptation hits Netflix tomorrow (Friday 13th December).