Dear reader, if you wish to avoid spoilers for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, then please, look away. Nothing but disappointment waits for you here.
The basic premise of Unfortunate Events is that the story has no happy endings – although it does occasionally have something like happy middles. Indeed, by the end of Daniel Handler’s thirteen book series (written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Baudelaire orphans will have lost just about every person they meet who is kind to them. Most to death, a few to circumstances a little more vague.
This is a children’s book series.
Now, Unfortunate Events is aimed at an audience on the cusp of young adulthood, intended to engage the growing minds of preteens and young teenagers with the kinds of questions that their rapidly maturing brains are starting to grapple with in earnest. What are good and evil? To what extent can people embody those traits? Why do adults do things that seem so incomprehensible to adolescents and children? The series also warns its younger readers of many things to watch out for in life. Authority figures are sometimes too untrustworthy, incompetent or emotionally comprised to be relied on. People are not always what they seem at first. And, of course, there are no happy endings in life – life always ends in death. And that’s rarely happy.
It’s not fair to say that nothing good ever happens to the Baudelaires. Their lives are hard, but they find friends and moments of peace. But they’re always moving on to the next thing, the next attempt to find the truth, the next attempt to find a home, the next attempt to get away from the evil Count Olaf. And by the time we reach the end of Snicket’s recounting of what he knows of their lives, including his own encounter with the Baudelaires, these warnings have proved true time and again, and the questions have found no easy answers. The Baudelaires do get away from Count Olaf.
It’s easy to run from someone who’s dead.
It’s not so easy to forget someone who chased you for years, setting fire to everything in his wake, and who died saving the life of a woman he hated – but loved in the past.
For a little while, the Baudelaires have peace on the secluded island where Olaf died. There’s food, shelter and no enemies to speak of. But there’s no challenge and when body and mind go unchallenged they rot. So they end the diary of their activities there – later found by their tireless biographer, Snicket – and set sail into the unknown. It is the end of their story by virtue of being all that is known to be told. Perhaps they thrived. And perhaps not.
In this mix of hope and melancholy the tale of the Baudelaires is summarized to perfection.
Netflix ruined it, as is their way.
Now I’m going to be very, very hard on the final episode of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but lest you think this means I disliked the production, let me take a moment to praise it. The writing carries over much of the book’s love of wordplay, incredible prose and sense of tongue in cheek fun at the forced dreariness of the story. Nothing in life can be as dull and depressing as Snicket’s take on the adventures of a handful of orphans. Part of the point of the novels is to point out how the endlessly bright and optimistic nature of many children’s books, replete with constant happy endings, is absurd. But rather than push this overbearing optimism to the point of parody, the absurdity is simply turned upside down. It might be easy to miss that and treat Unfortunate Events as something to be played straight. Nothing, from the written dialog to the actor’s performances, the set designs to the musical score, ever makes that mistake.
And speaking of production values, they are incredible. The sets are gorgeous and fun, the music fits the story perfectly and the actors are all spot on. In particular, the delightful Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and the droll Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket absolutely nail their parts, bringing roles that could easily become grating or boring to life with a gentle touch.
The Netflix adaptation is, on the whole, excellent. But their ending undermines the entire premise of the story. You see… the Netflix ending is happy.
Now, I’ve come out in favor of happy endings in the past, particularly in the case of Edge of Tomorrow in contrast to its source material, All You Need is Kill. But the important caveat to that is the change of the core narrative from one of falling into fatalistic resolve to one of discovering hopeful courage – a change to the ending only makes sense with the change in message. Unfortunate Events has no such change in its core narrative.
Thus, the Netflix adaptation makes two core mistakes in its final episode. First, it explicitly shows the salvation of a mismanaged group of colonists on the isle. At the time everyone there was suffering from poison. In the novel the Baudelaires find an unconventional antidote but the leader of the colony takes it himself, but doesn’t tell anyone else, instead leading them off the island towards what he says is a place they can find what they need to formulate a conventional remedy. He’s the story’s example of incompetent leadership, contrasted against the Baudelaires’ parents, who leave a diary on the island which the orphans read to find their own solution. In the Netflix adaptation, the colonists set out for the dubious yet conventional antidote before the orphans find the unconventional substitute. We later see the substitute being delivered to the colonists as they row away – making it seem much more certain they survive. In the same sequence we also see a number of side characters from throughout the series finding the end of their minor goals, giving them happy endings as well, something the novel also avoided. The core idea of Unfortunate Events, that there are no happy endings, is lost.
The second error is like the first.
Incidentally, it’s not Olaf’s Last Act. This tiny moment of redemption offered to Olaf’s character is thematically appropriate. Almost every other character is more complex and conflicted than Olaf is until he takes the time to save Kit Snicket and, by showing this tinge of good will in the character, we see the idea that people are more than what they seem paid off once more. It doesn’t make him a good man. But there was undoubtedly a capacity for good in him that went tragically underused.
No, the final failure of the Netflix adaptation is that, after we see the Baudelaires sail into the sunset to the new and unknown challenges of the rest of their life we come back to poor, lonely Lemony Snicket, who has spent all his time chronicling their life as a final tribute to his lost love, Beatrice, who, in the novels, closed knowing he would never know the end of the story – thematically appropriate because you can never guess the end of your life from the vantagepoint of adolescence – and we cut the knees out from under that moral. Because Lemony meets Beatrice.
Not his lost love, but the little orphan girl the Baudelaires take in themselves, Kit Snicket’s daughter and Lemony’s niece. She comes and finds him, and tells him the Baudelaires are fine. And we get closure, knowing that everything’s going to be fine.
That was not the point.
The point was to tell adolescents that, although their struggles are real and never really go away, they’re also good and they make you a better person. So take the good times when they come and never shy away from the bad things. There’s nothing guaranteed but a wild ride, and that’s okay. The wonder of the ending of Unfortunate Events is the unknown. The refusal to give pat, happy endings was what set it apart. And, in the end, Netflix lost that. It’s not like everything else the show achieved was lost. But it was unfortunate.