Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the most unusual new TV series you’re likely to see this year. The highly anticipated adaptation of a hugely popular children’s book series, its most prominent characteristic is a painstaking faithfulness to its source material: the quirky tale of the Baudelaire orphans and the evil Count Olaf’s perpetual schemes to steal their fortune.
Both the books and the show are written by Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket — a narrator who’s part of the story he’s telling — and Handler has rigorously translated his own work from page to screen. This literal reproduction is what makes the Netflix series far more satisfying than the previous screen adaptation of the books, the 2004 feature film A Series of Unfortunate Events, but far, far more frustrating than its textual counterpart.
The plot of Lemony Snicket’s tale is simple. The Baudelaire children — Violet, Klaus, and infant Sunny — are still young when their wealthy parents are killed in a mysterious fire. Their inheritance leaves them vulnerable to the machinations of Count Olaf, who adopts a variety of disguises (and commits a variety of murders) to try to gain control of the children and their money. Each of Handler’s 13 books will eventually be covered by the TV series; the show has already been renewed for a second season. Season one tackles the first four books, from A Bad Beginning to The Miserable Mill.
The Netflix adaptation adds nuance to what was caricature in the books, in a lot of key ways: In particular, Neil Patrick Harris sacrifices none of Count Olaf’s natural campiness while still making him feel incredibly sinister. And as Vox’s Caroline Framke noted in her review of the series, its weird Tim Burton-y feel lends much-appreciated depth to the world.
But with that depth comes a deceptive literalism: Handler’s update of his own story is so faithful that it makes the parts that aren’t painstakingly drawn from his novels stand out even more. Here are the six key differences that make the Netflix version worth tuning in for — or worth skipping, depending on how faithful you like your adaptations to be.
1) Lemony Snicket is more obviously a part of the story from the beginning — and that changes everything
The biggest and most immediate difference between the books and the Netflix series is the way it uses its title character and narrator. As children’s literature, A Series of Unfortunate Events slides neatly into a long Roald Dahl-ian tradition of depicting the world’s cruelty to children through caricature and humor in order to create distance and a sense of empathy and understanding. It accomplishes that primarily through the flawless combination of whimsy and cynicism inherent to Lemony Snicket’s narration — a style that any onscreen adaptation inevitably loses due to the difficulty of capturing the steady rhythm of Snicket’s ever-present editorializing.
Onscreen, we miss many wonderful moments of wry cynicism, such as this observation Snicket makes in book two, The Reptile Room:
Olaf smiled at them the way Uncle Monty’s Mongolian Meansnake would smile when a white mouse was placed in its cage each day for dinner.
Snicket is known for his deadpan descriptions of dire predicaments — but the show also loses a fabulously intricate assortment of his verbal embellishments, like the constant alliteration, the wordplay, and ongoing covert jokes embedded in the way Sunny speaks — for example:
“Ackroid!” Sunny said, which probably meant something like “Roger!”
The satirical distance combined with overly literary comedy is crucial to preventing the Baudelaires’ story from feeling truly too dark to enjoy — because despite its endearing humor and the stylistic flourishes, it really is a bleak story of child abuse and neglect, one that continually highlights the ways in which social systems so often fail to protect those who need protection the most.
In the books, Lemony Snicket serves three roles: He’s the author and narrator, as well as a character in his own story. However, he remains behind the scenes for as long as possible while telling his tale, and we know him mainly through his narration. His constant asides and the way he frames the story perpetually remind you that Snicket is on the children’s side.
In the Netflix series, Snicket — voiced with deadened aplomb by Patrick Warburton — is front and center from the beginning; we know right away that he’s a character as well as the narrator. This single element has a huge impact on the tone and the spirit of the show, because it erases that initial distance between us and the story’s dark subject matter.
We see from the get-go how tired and downtrodden Snicket is by his own story. His constant delightful reproaches to close the book and stop reading — because the story is just too dreadful to bear, of course — become sober pleas from Warburton’s Snicket, who is clearly already resigned to the fact that you will not change the channel. (Snicket’s pleas also become the show’s theme song, “Look Away,” which is an odd injunction when it’s sung by the villain, i.e., Neil Patrick Harris.) His presence still provides some distance, but it’s not as effective.
At their best, the Lemony Snicket novels contain moments of dry pathos and cynicism couched in aphorisms about how the world works. That literary embellishment could never be translated onto the screen, despite Handler’s best efforts and Warburton’s best delivery. Thus, Netflix’s adaptation feels colder than its literary counterpart. Its dire happenings feel bleak rather than punctuated with joy; its warnings feel merely sad rather than wryly funny; and its routine infusions of comedy and warmth can’t quite thaw its cold, dark heart.
2) Mr. Poe gets more attention
In the books, there’s a feeling that Mr. Poe, the family banker who’s in charge of handing the children over to one terrible guardian after another, is a side note — a minor character who shows up only to be officious and obtuse.
In the Netflix series, Mr. Poe’s part seems much bigger, and his life, family, and work/home environments are drawn in considerably more detail than we ever get on the page. His wife, who barely has a name in the novels, also has her own part to play, though it’s just as ridiculous and bad for the children as Poe’s own well-intentioned yet myopic meddling.
The result is that Mr. Poe is transformed from a side character to feeling like he might just be the incompetent heart of the entire story. In both the books and the TV show, every adult who enters the children’s lives fails them in some way. But in the Netflix adaptation, it’s clearer than ever that Mr. Poe, despite his goodwill and basic decency, combines all the worst traits of every other well-meaning adult the Baudelaires encounter: His condescension, impatience, selfishness, fear, self-preservation, misguided politeness, and, above all, his refusal to listen to and respect the children endanger them almost as often as the villainous Count Olaf does.
Given all of that, it takes a lot to make such a character likable and funny, yet K. Todd Freeman pulls it off: We somehow wind up happy to see Mr. Poe show up for every incompetent, bumbling non-rescue.
3) The show introduces an entirely new side plot that didn’t exist in the books
The Netflix series has one big surprise in store for those who’ve read the books: a new subplot that ultimately makes the story of the Baudelaires, and the viewer’s experience watching it, seem more dismal, miserable, and unfortunate than ever.
We won’t spoil it here, but the new storyline — a clever addition that nonetheless offers its share of Snickety misfortune — features special guest stars Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders as a pair of spies who’ve been taken hostage in Peru. Their James Bond–like escapades add an element of fun while fueling the background mystery of why all this is happening to the Baudelaire family. They also prepare us to meet a set of characters who will likely prove important to the Baudelaires in season two.
4) Netflix foregrounds spy shenanigans and intrigue
In the books, hints of secret societies and the elaborate backstory that leads Count Olaf — and Lemony Snicket — to the Baudelaires unfold gradually over the series’ 13 installments. But in the Netflix series, the existence of the secret society we will later come to know as the VFD is revealed very early on.
The VFD is everywhere, overshadowing all of the action. In the remains of the fire that turns the three Baudelaire siblings into orphans, Klaus finds a special spyglass that detects secret messages. Mr. Poe’s secretary is a spy working to aid the children in their escape from Count Olaf. In a new scene that didn’t take place in the books, a special message appears onscreen during a movie for Uncle Monty to decode with the spyglass. Olaf and his henchmen try to prevent the message from getting to them, but even though they fail, its connection to the larger plot is never quite made clear — at least not yet.
Olaf’s pre-fire connection with the Baudelaire family through the secret society is immediately established, even though the books don’t address it until much later. The three children spend far more of their time in the Netflix adaptation than they do in the novels attempting to find answers to their parents’ mysterious past — mainly because in the Netflix version, the fact that their parents have a mysterious past is made evident almost immediately.
This quest leads to the children running away from Mr. Poe at the end of the events of The Wide Window — instead of going with him peaceably once more, as they do in the books — and finding their own way to the ominous lumber mill.
5) The adults are all a tad bit more nuanced — but Olaf is more vile than ever
The Netflix series does its best to make visual lots of details that received only a passing mention in the books; for instance, Count Olaf’s acting career is more noticeable, and his henchmen are more prominent as distinct characters.
The series has also done its best to make each of the Baudelaires’ non-Olaf guardians feel a bit more humanized and well-intentioned. For example, in the second book, The Reptile Room, Uncle Monty follows the established pattern of adults refusing to believe or listen to children when they try to tell him that his new assistant, “Stefano,” is Count Olaf in disguise.
Instead, he’s convinced that the assistant is a spy from his rivals at the local Herpetological Society, and nothing the children say can convince him otherwise. In the TV series, Uncle Monty still thinks Stefano is a spy, but a giant miscommunication keeps the children from realizing that he doesn’t understand who his new assistant really is. This slight change, along with Aasif Mandvi’s personable portrayal of Monty, makes the character seem far more attentive and caring than he is in the book.
A similar change happens with Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard), who is so afraid for her life at the end of book three, The Wide Window, that she attempts to bargain for her safety using the children. On the show, Josephine clearly struggles to recover her courage, but does so in her story’s final moments, proving herself to be a faithful, if misguided, guardian of the children all along.
All of this is in contrast to Count Olaf, who somehow comes across as even more evil than he is in the books. Perhaps this is because the adaptation devotes more time to showing him moving among his henchmen and compatriots in crime; perhaps it’s because Neil Patrick Harris is just that good. Either way, this version of the Count is likely to send shivers up your spine for all the wrong reasons.
6) Things are a bit more miserable at the Miserable Mill
The plot additions that Handler has added to spice up the spy subplot become a bit clearer in the Netflix series’ two-part season one finale — a pair of episodes that cover book four, The Miserable Mill. Specifically, we learn of a mysterious backstory to the Lucky Lumber Mill that didn’t exist in the books: The Baudelaire children’s parents once worked there, before a mysterious fire engulfed the place.
Fire plays a huge part in the novels and is a recurring theme throughout, but it becomes even more prominent as the Netflix series progresses. The workers at the mill are also under the control of the evil Dr. Orwell, whose villainous powers of hypnosis have turned them all into brainwashed factory drones. The code word to free them from their hypnotic state? Fire.
The fire theme encapsulates the Netflix production’s general approach to the books — many elements that began as subtle themes in the novels feel more central here. And fire is also the season’s structural ouroboros: It both starts and ends with conflagration.
The changes don’t drastically help or hurt the story, but will make die-hard fans want to go back to the books
On the whole, very few of these changes feel like jarring distortions of the original series. We do gain plenty of new elements, like occasional singing, the increased humorous antics of Olaf and his Henchmen, and the chance to see ensemble characters gain more nuance.
But it’s hard not to be aware of everything we’re missing — especially because, with nine novels still to adapt, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events offers fans an excuse to reread the books to regain the essence of a story that even the most faithful adaptation can never quite capture.
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the actor who plays Monty. He is Aasif Mandvi.