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Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events

February 1, 2005 by Leanne McRae

Directed by Brad Silberling

Children's fiction can offer us some of the richest and rebellious narratives of our time. Roald Dahl gave us gross and grand tales in The BFG, The Twits and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. JK Rowling reinvented the field with the Harry Potter series. Most often, this disempowered genre operates through insightful and innovative stories that accentuate the imaginations of children (and adults). These texts operate on the fringes of what is considered 'acceptable' literature. Every now and again someone — usually conservative social censors — is outraged at what the children are reading (for example, those commentators who claim Harry Potter turns children to witchcraft). But these stories present social alternatives to young people and offer them a world in which their concerns are visualised and where young people are insightful, active and articulate. Most importantly, these youths are much smarter than their parents and other authority figures.

I had no previous knowledge of the Lemony Snicket books, and still know very little about this mysterious author (Daniel Handler). However, my journey into the film adaptation of this literary series was punctuated by the fabulous rebelliousness of this world and its characters. I was pleasantly surprised by the originality and stunning execution of this warped and wonderous fairy tale.

In Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events three Baudelaire children — Violet, Klaus and Sunny — combat the evil Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) for possession of their great fortune left to them upon the tragic, untimely and mysterious deaths of their parents who were (most unfortunately) killed in a house fire.

These three intelligent and resourceful youths must call upon their unique gifts to combat Count Olaf's coercion. Violet is an inventor — always working on trinkets and gadgets. Klaus reads books, memorizing every word. Sunny is a biter, with jaw strength a prize fighter would envy. Together they are moved from home to home seeking solace with relatives who can shield them from Olaf's unsavoury intentions.

The children's greatest enemy in this journey is the system of 'good intentions' they are trapped within. Time and again they attempt to tell the adults in their lives of Olaf's deceptions. On each occasion they are ignored, only to have their latest guardian killed off by the evil Count.

Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events is a stunning film that is beautifully designed and shot. Its inventive narrative makes it compelling viewing and amongst the darkest and more 'bent' children's films I have ever seen. If only they made adult films with the same originality.

In a refreshing twist, this film has no clear motivational message instructing its youthful audience to believe in themselves and triumphantly conquer evil. The children do not face off against Olaf, trip him over, or set an elaborate trap to ensnare him. They react spontaneously to situations by bringing forth the best of who they are — an inventor, a reader and a biter — and it is then that they succeed, very often only to be plunged back into peril by well-meaning authorities. The failure of any adult or official organisation to effectively protect these children comes through most powerfully. All elders are either actors, obsessive compulsive, ignorant, naïve or impotent. The children are far more intelligent and innovative than any of them.

The clearest strategy in this story surrounds the integrity of children to intervene in their own lives and lessons. Throughout the narrative an investigative trope is deployed. Lemony Snicket (voiced by Jude Law) narrates from hindsight recounting his own investigations into the series of unfortunate events experienced by the Baudelaire children at the hands of Count Olaf and the impotent social welfare system they are thrown into. Viewers are warned to expect the worst. The consequences of this failing and fallible system are dire.

Consistently, this narrative suggests that adults are self-involved and vain. Viewers are urged to find out for themselves what is real and truthful. Trusting your own judgement and instincts will result in victory and validation of who you are. Like The Incredibles, this tale dares individuals to be exceptional in a culture of mediocrity and banality.

The ambiguous and dislocated setting of a Victorian-esque time and place activates imaginings of industrialism, creation and craft that frames the Olaf acting troupe, the disposability of the children and their thirst for invention and originality. It is an effective metaphor for our current times. In an era of great possibility and profound inequality the greed and self-obsession of adults spotlights the unfair and unequal social structures encircling individuals. In this system, the family is both the source of, and shield against, the horrors of exploitation and extermination. However, unlike the Dickensian narratives upon which it is based, Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events, does not conclude with the Baudelaire children wrapped in the warm embrace of their long lost relatives. Their family is crafted out of their own originality and their extraordinary gifts that distinguish and unite them.

Through wry humour and urgent warnings cautioning viewers, Lemony Snicket engages a delightfully covert and conspiratorial consciousness. The audience is led through discoveries, languages, secret societies, correct grammar, inventions, carnivorous leeches, and devious villains. It is a journey of excess and excitement.

The most effective narrative tool Snicket mobilises is to give these characters, their lives and experiences resonance beyond the screen. By implicating viewers in his dark and delicious world, they are complicit in the tales and trials of the three Baudelaire orphans.