It wouldn’t be an enormous stretch to say that A Series of Unfortunate Events is my favourite children’s series of all time, and so the announcement that Netflix was going to be adapting it into a TV series was just about one of the most exciting things that ever happened, rivalled only by when I received screeners for the first four episodes. These arrived rather unexpectedly, so I hadn’t yet had the chance to re-read the first four books that the Netflix series is adapting. Luckily the episodes I had received only covered the first two books, so I swiftly set to work reading The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room before giddily diving into the screeners.
The Netflix series, for the record, is excellent and an absolute gift to people who love the books as much as I do, but this isn’t about the show. I want to talk about the experience of reading those books as an adult.
I had only planned to revisit the first two and then read the next two before the official release, but that wasn’t what happened. Within minutes of finishing The Reptile Room I was on to The Wide Window and suddenly buried in a devoted binge-read of the whole series, going through a book a day even as they got thicker and denser. It was a strange, dizzying experience where I maybe wasn’t paying as much attention as I could have due to the fast-paced nature of the read but was so lost in the world, lore, story and characters that it didn’t really matter as one book blurred into the next and the story of the Baudelaire orphans unfolded like one long, tangled, winding novel.
Due to signing an embargo that means I can’t publicly refer to having seen the show until January 5, I won’t be posting until then, but I’m writing this literally minutes after putting down The End, while the storm of emotions I experienced over the last couple of weeks is all still fresh in my head.
Nostalgia is a big one, of course, as is always a part of revisiting any series that you grew up loving. I found myself flashing back to all the places I was when I eagerly dived into each new book upon release and the excitement of thinking that maybe this time all my questions would be answered, before Daniel Handler piled on a whole new assortment of mysteries on top of the ones that remained frustratingly unsolved. I relived the obsession I had with all things V.F.D, Snicket, Olaf and Baudelaire, combing the books for clues and hints that, in retrospect, seem far less meticulously planned than I chose to believe they were when I was younger.
But nostalgia is ultimately a shallow reason to enjoy something, and to me the definition of a classic is how it holds up to multiple readings/viewings. And while the early books in the series were well worn from how many times I read them as a kid, the later books weren’t nearly as ingrained in my memory due to only having read them once. The possibility lingered that the series might not be as good as I remembered it, and while I was reasonably confident that wouldn’t be the case, part of me was a little concerned that I would be tainting my lingering love for the books by viewing them with adult eyes.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. And while the early books are fairly repetitive and predictable, all following more or less the same formula, they’re short enough that it doesn’t really matter and once you reach the second half of the series the wild ride really begins. And so does the realisation that, while I always suspected there were hidden depths to this series, I was too young during my initial discovery of them to really appreciate what Daniel Handler was trying to do.
A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t perfect, but no masterpiece is. Flaws tend to give something its individuality, and besides, the thematic genius of this series far outweighs any plotting/pacing/believability issues. As a kid I think I struggled to get my head around the tone of the series; absurd and blackly comedic one second, sombre and meditative the next. As an adult though, it makes a lot more sense and is a lot more rewarding. A Series of Unfortunate Events starts out as a dark joke; watch bad things happen to unfailingly good people. By the end it’s so much more than that. It’s a celebration of curiosity, literacy and decency. It’s a rallying call for the best in humanity. It’s a searing indictment of talking down to children or trying to shelter them from the things that we don’t believe they can understand. It’s a gentle assurance that even though someone might be flawed, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. And it wraps all of that up in an intoxicating cocktail of gripping storytelling, shocking twists, compelling mysteries, witty wordplay and lots and lots of outright hilarity.
I think the biggest telling point for how this series shifts on a second read from a more grown up perspective is how I felt about the conclusion. As a kid, The End was frustrating and anticlimactic; after the brilliance of The Penultimate Peril, which brought together all the plot threads of the preceding novels but stopped short of answering any massive questions, The End felt like it should have provided the solutions to all the lingering mysteries. Did the Baudelaire parents have anything to do with the death of Olaf’s? What really happened between Lemony Snicket and Beatrice? Do the Quagmires survive? Is Aunt Josephine alive and was she the woman who lured Widdershins away from the Queequeg at the worst possible moment? What exactly is V.F.D? And just what is the importance of the Sugar Bowl? Some of these questions are answered in the excellent prequel series All The Wrong Questions (which I’m starting a re-read of tomorrow) but The End provides just about no closure for any of them, which is hugely annoying when you’re a fourteen year old who’s spent far too much time counting down the days until all these tantalising mysteries are solved.
But coming into The End knowing this allows the book to reveal itself as what it actually is; essentially a thesis for all the central themes of the series, themes that made it far more than its secrets. The End basically forgets all the lingering loose ends regarding V.F.D and instead takes Olaf and the Baudelaires to a distant island overseen by Ishmael, a dictator who attempts to shelter his people from anything upsetting. Items that might be useful are discarded, books that might be revelatory are hidden and the people of the island are kept dosed up with an opiate that stops them getting too restless with their tedious circumstances. The arrival of the Baudelaires and their nemesis changes things, however, and in a key scene the children learn that their parents were here before them but kept silent about the whole experience. Ishmael makes a compelling case for their parents attempting to protect them from secrets better left unsolved, in much the same way as he protects the people on the island from the darkness and complexity of the outside world. The Baudelaires are given a choice; is it better to live safely without considering any dangerous ideas or confronting anything ominous, or is it better to ask questions, live your life, experience the world and accept that doing so means you will sooner or later come up against evil and injustice?
Handler squarely comes down on the side of the latter, because, as the people of the island learn, you can’t hide from the things that scare you forever. The world is not a safe or gentle place, and the sooner you realise that the better. Handler famously detests condescending children’s stories with contrived happy endings because that’s not how life works, and to pretend otherwise for the sake of sparing people some discomfort is to lie. I think it’s this central ethos that makes Unfortunate Events special, that makes it so much more than just a lot of dark humour and frustrating McGuffins. Like any classic, the things that draw people to it, while fantastic in their own right, are in many ways just window dressing for the deeper purpose below it all. Is The End satisfying from a plot perspective? Not especially, but thematically it’s about the most perfect conclusion this series could ask for.
But finding a deeper appreciation for the themes of the story doesn’t in any way dilute everything else. A Series of Unfortunate Events is as funny and resolutely odd as ever, and I found myself analysing all the mysteries all over again and tweeting my theories to the three people who might know what I’m on about. Having read All The Wrong Questions gave me some new ideas about all those lingering loose ends, and I’m looking forward to seeing if the more recent series is just as good on the second go round as its predecessor.
But as far as A Series of Unfortunate Events is concerned, for my money it is a masterpiece of children’s literature, unlike anything that came before or after it. It’s not every bit as good as I remembered; it’s much, much better.
Writing words about writing words.