Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the brainchild of author Daniel Handler, started as a popular 13-book series from 1999-2006, the first three novels were adapted into a film in 2004 starring Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep and Jude Law, and now is hitting the small screen with a new Netflix series featuring Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Warburton.
That’s considerable lasting power, especially since Handler himself says he “never thought anyone would be interested in these books.”
“I’ve always been astonished by what has happened with them and I continue to be astonished,” he says.
The eight-episode first season adapts the first four books, which follow three orphaned siblings who undergo a, yes, series of unfortunate events when their parents die and they’re sent to live with a distant and incredibly creepy relative, Count Olaf (Harris).
amNewYork spoke with Handler about the series, which he also wrote.
How does this meet your vision of the books?
Gosh, I don’t know. I think it meets perfectly, or as perfect as one could expect, what we’re all trying to do together. I thought [director/producer] Barry Sonnenfeld would bring a really interesting directorial style and I thought Neil Patrick Harris would bring a really interesting element to Count Olaf, and things like that. I always think my uncompromised vision got to happen in the books, so I’m just interested always in how adaptations work, what happens to them and things like that, which is a lot more fun than sitting around and saying, “This has got to look exactly how it looks in my head.”
What was your process for adapting the books? Any tough decisions?
The whole adaptation is kind of one big tough decision, which is balancing between the expectations of the story and also the expectations of wanting to do something different. Our decision was to keep it as loyal to the story as possible, but to add a lot more things. And so, there are aspects to the story that are barely hinted at in the books or not even to be found in the books. The core story remains unchanged. So that was kind of our formula, and all the other decisions went out from there.
How did you land on Neil for Count Olaf?
I got the idea for him as Count Olaf when I saw him perform a big opening song at the Tonys that made fun of musical theater while being super enthusiastic about musical theater. The idea that you can be kidding and not kidding at the same time was a quality that we were talking about in terms of performances and aesthetics of the show. So I think his Count Olaf manages to be funny sometimes, but it’s not campy. He’s still scary, so he seems not dismissible. He seems really creepy. Then what was pleasing about working with him is his commitment is really to the story, to figuring out ways that help the story get told in the best ways possible as opposed to looking for as much screen time as possible or having a funny bit that we have to try and shoehorn into some part of the story. So that was really refreshing.
Patrick Warburton is so great in this. I could just watch him walking and talking for two hours.
That’s exactly how I feel [laughs]. I’d probably put about 20 times more of him in the series. I think that would maybe be where there was some disagreement between the creators — not that anybody had disrespect for his performance. But I think I was ready for unlimited Warburton. Gosh, he’s been in so many terrific things. He’s in this really tiny film called “The Woman Chaser” that I happened to see — I’m one of the few people to ever see it in a movie theater I think. And there were a couple of clips of it on YouTube, and I’m glad there were because when we first thought of him, I said he’s best in this movie that no one had seen, and then I showed a couple of clips on YouTube and one of them was practically Lemony Snicket personified. It was great. I felt like I was his agent for about 5 minutes, so that was really fun. Also, I’m not an actor at all, so I can’t really speak to the skill set, but he would just memorize these long, long passages of description, sometimes with last-minute changes, and then we would say, “You have to step out of this building and walk down here and then do this, all while monologuing, and we just changed four things so they make more sense,” and he would say, “OK,” which was astonishing.
What are the advantages of having the longer run time of a TV show over a movie?
Well, I mean, I would say that’s the advantage. It will feel like a series of unfortunate events rather than condensing them into a movie. Netflix approached me about doing this and that was kind of the strength of their pitch. They said, “We don’t have to worry about condensing everything. In fact, the challenge will be stretching it out and making it last for a long time as a show.”
This has a pretty dark tone — do you think it’s still good for kids?
Yes, I would say it is. I mean, I don’t think it’s a dark tone that’s inappropriate for children. I always felt the line between people who appreciate “Snicket” and don’t is more about the line of irony which some people acquire at a very early age and some people never acquire. And so to me, to understand that there’s something a little bit funny about horrifying things and a little bit horrifying about funny things, that’s really the personality that we’re looking for. Some babies understand that.