A Look Back: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

When I was still very young, I noticed a decidedly odd thing about orphans – whether in book or film – that so many seemed to be blessed with amazing musical talent. (A majority also had red hair.) This did not make a great deal of sense when you sat down and considered it, but I went with it because why not? At the time, I did not have a series like Lemony Snicket’s (alias for Daniel Handler) “A Series of Unfortunate Events” which would have clued me in that not all orphan characters possess the ability to turn their woes into song, dance or impromptu gymnastics. The series, which stars three orphans who lose their parents in a suspicious house fire, and was made into a movie starring Jim Carrey, is honest enough to inform the reader from the start that the books are terrifically depressing and that the reader would be better off reading something else. Which of course, works as reverse psychology, as the series was quite successful.

In each book, the reader – while faced with the truth that life for the young is often unpleasant and/or unpredictable – can be assured of three things. One, that each orphan – played in the movie by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and twins Kara/Shelby Hoffman as their infant sister – will be faced with dealing with their nefarious “uncle” (Jim Carrey) who is determined to get his hands on their fortune, and who has a seemingly endless array of disguises. Two, that when the children realize what their nemesis is up to, they will be disregarded if not presented with absurd reasons for why this truth is otherwise. And three, that while they will be able to use their unique skill sets (they are an inventor, a bibliophile and a biter respectively) to wriggle out of trouble – more will simply await them in the next installment.

The movie of “A Series,” stays true (at least at the beginning) by the narrator (Jude Law) recommending that the viewer seek another film to watch, and then gets down to business by having the children’s new guardian (Timothy Spall) meet them on the beach with the unfortunate news that they will now be living with Jim Carrey who is soon dismayed at the fact that he can’t get the fortune until Emily turns 18 or the trio croaks, and pawns them off on another guardian (Billy Connelly), a herpetologist, who seems benign until Jim shows up in disguise. From there, it’s curtains for Billy, forcing the trio to move in with an aunt (Meryl Streep), who is deathly afraid of everything, lives in a house overlooking a leech-filled lake, and who also meets an untimely end. The third act has the orphans living with Jim, who decides to engineer his marriage to his niece, by putting on (why not?) a play with his equally awful allies.

Luckily, the orphans manage to foil every unfortunate event that comes their way – though the movie’s end, which allows the children to take revenge on Jim that never arrives in the early books, is more Hollywoodish. Apart from that, it’s true enough to the books, although if a child watches it with an adult, they probably will be treated to a series of, “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so?” Life is tough when you’re an orphan, but as hokey as it sounds, sticking together and pooling your talents will help you survive in the long run.

 

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A Look Back: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A quick question. When a filmmaker decides to improve upon the original source – such as a children’s book – is it really necessary to add dark psychological overtones? Specifically, does the target audience – in the case of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Wes Anderson, really care if an Oedipal slant is inserted? My guess is no, but like Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (also based on a Dahl book), it received it anyway. The good news is that Mr. Fox’s (George Clooney’s) conflicts with his eccentric son (Jason Schwartzman) don’t detract from the movie, even though adding a backstory about Willy Wonka being estranged from his dad was, in several senses, excess baggage.

Like classic fairy tales such as those from the appropriately named Grimm’s, many of Dahl’s children’s books feature horrifying parents or guardians. The titular Matilda (of the book and movie starring Mara Wilson) gets told by her used car salesman dad (Danny DeVito), “There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.” The beloved grandmother who teaches her grandson about “The Witches,” and loves him just the same after he’s enchanted into a mouse, however, is a exception. So too, are Mr. Fox and his wife (Meryl Streep) whose brood of youngsters is shrunk in the movie into one son, although soon a houseguest arrives, their overachieving nephew (Eric Chase Anderson). But there’s bigger problems than quasi-sibling rivalry afoot because Mr. Fox, now a journalist, still longs for his old life raiding nearby farms, particularly those belonging to the mean-spirited, dim bulb trio of Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). When circumstances force the Fox family out of their home at a tree base, and George, with his family and friends is forced into warfare, with the trio, it’s up to Mr. Fox to use every bit of his ingenuity to keep them all from starving.

Originally, Dahl had intended to have Mr. Fox solve his problems by having him burrow under and rob a supermarket. However, his American publishers were concerned that that would send the wrong message – that stealing is acceptable – so they fixed things by suggesting that Mr. Fox rob the original villains of the tale. Though they were afraid that Dahl would take offense, he actually loved the change and accepted it without argument. In the movie, ultimately, Mr. Fox winds up “borrowing” from a supermarket, but suitable revenge is also taken on the three bad guys. Capturing the magic of the original source is a challenge for any director wishing to bring a children’s book to the big screen, but the filmmakers do an excellent job here.