Lemony Snicket speaks out about Netflix’s Series of Unfortunate Events
More than 10 terrible years after the Baudelaire orphans reached the happy end of their unfortunate journey, they have to do it all over again — on television.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is Netflix’s newest all-ages series drop, culling an eight-episode first season from the first four books in Snicket’s best-selling 1999-2006 children’s novel series.
Snicket—real name, Daniel Handler—has seen his woeful world imagined onscreen before, but never so binge-ably. Nickelodeon/Paramount/DreamWorks adapted the first three books into a promising film in 2004 (starring Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep, among others), but plans for future films in the would-be franchise went dormant. In 2014, Netflix approached Handler to once again try to adapt the series, and with season 2 already underway, it appears as if all 13 books may finally see the dismal light of day this time.
ASOUE’s general somber story follows the three Baudelaire children — Violet, Klaus, and Sunny — after they receive distressing news about the untimely death of their parents. Until Violet, the eldest, turns 18 and inherits her family’s great fortune, the trio is handed off from negligent guardian to negligent guardian, forcing the kids to not only look out for themselves but also try to outwit and outsmart the persistent threat of Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a distant and oft-disguised relative who stalks the Baudelaires to every foster home and schemes to get his hands on their wealth.
On the eve of the perfectly-timed Friday the 13th premiere of the series, Handler/Snicket chatted with EW about the adaptation in all its anguish and agony.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: From the get-go, you can honestly hear it in the dialogue that Lemony Snicket fits in very nicely on television. Are you having a ball?
DANIEL HANDLER: It’s been really fun. Challenging, too, but fun. Netflix put together a bunch of people who were really enthusiastic, and I think that’s made all the difference. It’s really nice to be in a room with people who are all excited about what they’re doing and who want to bring something specifically to life and don’t need to be sold on it.
Is TV a medium you’d always envisioned for Baudelaire kids? Because when you were writing the books between 1999 and 2006, it was certainly a different kind of entertainment.
You know, we approached various television makers back in the day, and the first question was always, “Does their house have to burn down? Do they have to be orphans?” Pretty basic questions, just because the thought of TV then was so sunny. It’s been nice not to have those conversations.
Did you have to go back and reexamine the series’ overarching mystery for this adaptation?
The conversations in the various rooms were about how to lay in a big, hovering mystery that would be suitable for TV, and that’s really the big change in the adaptation — to make that mystery more present and to make it something that you need to notice. In a book, you can put in a stray sentence, and if you’re reading the book obsessively, your eyes will eventually fall on that sentence. But in television, you either have to make a mystery or you don’t. You can’t say, “I hope that people look under the table.” They won’t look under the table unless the camera looks under the table for them.
Has the mystery itself significantly changed from the books?
I would say that the destination is the same, but the route is different.
Is there anything you wrote (or didn’t write) in the books that, now that it’s a TV show, you regret writing (or not writing)?
Not too many specific things, but I would say that in general, my entire literary career is one of regret and despair, so just to re-read A Series of Unfortunate Events in preparation for this project was a little like going through old yearbooks. I’m used to being a constant disappointment to myself, so some individual sentence that turned out to be troublesome was kind of small potatoes next to a general feeling of failure.
Was it important to you to write on every episode?
We had a team of writers, but I went in and fiddled with things, and sometimes they fiddled back. Obviously, when I’m watching it I can only see the faults of everything, and it’s very convenient to imply that all of the faults are other people. That’s the nice thing about collaboration. [Laughs.]
How precious are you about the material, on a scale of J.K. Rowling to P.L. Travers?
I love that scale. I have a sense that when you write a book the way you want, which certainly happened with me, then you have that unfettered, uncompromised vision already. And so [for the TV series], I wasn’t the sort of person who said, “Well, I never pictured the window in Uncle Monty’s house to look like this! Everybody stop, we have to rebuild it according to the blueprint I have in my head.” I was more interested in what would people think or do. That isn’t to say we never argued or disagreed, but I was more interested in people having a good time and coming together to make something that seemed exciting, rather than laying it against page 57 of a book and saying, “No, wait a minute.”
Tell me about the balance in the demographic, between adults and kids watching this show.
Well, now that I am a parent, which I wasn’t when I started writing books for children, I’m just aware of things that you want to read and watch that are not torture for the adults. As an adult, when you look at most children’s programming, you cringe. So I think the idea was to find something that was appropriate for children but has enough that the parents aren’t rolling their eyes and leaving the room and sneaking another shot of bourbon. Not that I’ve ever done that to my own son, but I’ve read that other people have done that.
Obviously, we have to talk about the movie adaptation with Jim Carrey, which was sort of unceremoniously scrapped before a second film. Part of the reason seems to be it just got lost in the shuffle of corporate shake-up with too many cooks. Can you bridge that gap, as to why the franchise fell apart?
Well, it’s also a mystery to me. Every so often I would get a call, and I would go down to Los Angeles, and I would sit in a room that would have some of the people who were involved in the film and some new people, and we would talk about things. I was commissioned to write a script a few years later, and it was always so serious. I would just come back, and then I would be in a room and there would be different people, and they’d have some new plan. I think there was always interest but, as you say, there were a lot of companies involved and whole phalanxes of lawyers who put it together the first time. I think that it was really kind of bureaucracy that prevented it before.
The crazy thing is, the movie performed fairly well. And, as a fan of the books, I really enjoyed it.
Yeah. It happens in books all the time. I think people like to fantasize that there’s some evil person who said, “A thousand times, no! We will never have the work of Lemony Snicket on the silver screen! I decree it!” And there’s not really a lot of that that goes on. [Laughs.]
So when Netflix popped up, did you think, “Ugh, another meeting?”
Netflix approached me, which was a nice feeling, because it wasn’t like I was wandering around town saying, “Hey, does anybody remember three orphans?” They have a pretty bluntly stated commitment of trying to let creative people do that kind of work. Also, Piper Kerman, who wrote the book Orange Is the New Black, is a friend of mine, and she said she had a good experience with them.
What’s next for you?
I am deep in season 2. I’ve been working in my own dining room with a team of writers I’m really loving on the next season, and we hope to get the go-ahead to do season 3, which… given how quickly young actors age and change, we’re trying to film everything as quickly as possible. The second season is laid out to be 10 episodes for the next five books, so it ends on The Carnivorous Carnival, and the third season would be the rest of it.
The movie only got through the third book, and the series gets to the fourth, The Miserable Mill, only after revisiting the first three again. Is it exciting to get to uncharted territory in season 2?
[Laughs] It is! It’s nice to go into something that hasn’t been adapted before. There’s a little feeling of, you have to be this tall to ride this ride.