December 20, 2004,
You could just read the books.
When I got home from seeing Lemony Snicket, I read through The Bad Beginning, the first in the 11-volume series about the unfortunate Baudelaire children. What with small pages and large print, it took about an hour. There I discovered that thing more precious than gold in publishing circles: a unique authorial voice. Daniel Handler, writing under the pseudonym "Lemony Snicket," narrates in a quietly morose, worried tone, recounting events that go from bad to worse and then worse again. The Baudelaires Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny, who bites were left parentless by a fire that destroyed their home, and have been placed in the care of a distant, evil relative, Count Olaf.
If you've never read any of these books, you think you can write it yourself from here. You can't. What makes them delicious is Handler's restraint. The Baudelaires' situation is not so much terrifying as depressing, though it's also absurd. Count Olaf consigns them to a huge, empty room with one lumpy bed that the older children must share in turn. Violet pulls down the dusty curtains to make a pile for the baby to sleep on. There is no closet; they have to keep their clothes in a giant cardboard box that once held a refrigerator. Can you picture it? Handler's narrator plays on the edge of humor and despair, speaking slowly and distinctly, pausing frequently to explain the meaning of words. He warns over and over that the story is never going to get better, and that we might prefer to read another book. Occasionally he lets slip puzzling bits of information about himself. It's effectively surreal, and that's a good thing.
All that delicate, intriguing capital is blasted in the movie version, just released by Dreamworks, starring Jim Carrey as Olaf and other big names in supporting roles (Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Catherine O'Hara, Dustin Hoffman, Cedric the Entertainer). The film is loud, frantic, and smart-alecky. It stoops to lows you could not conceive. In one wholly unnecessary shot, an anchor falls on a small boat that contains a white duck. As the boat goes under, the duck shouts, "Aaaaaaaaaaaafff..." Yes, it's the AFLAC duck, who appears in the credits voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.
Here's an example of the kind of tone-of-voice shift that's apparent between movie and book. In the film, Uncle Monty (brilliantly portrayed by Billy Connolly) shows the children his collection of exotic animals. There's a toad with three eyes, whom he says won't stop chanting "Om Ribbit Om Ribbit." I don't think that's very funny, but I guess it sounds kind of smart, in the fashion sense. Maybe not recent fashion.
In a parallel scene in the second novel, The Reptile Room, Uncle Monty warns the kids that some of his snakes are dangerous: "There is a snake in this room whose venom is so deadly that your heart would stop before you even knew he'd bitten you. There is a snake who can open her mouth so wide she could swallow all of us, together, in one gulp. There is a pair of snakes who have learned to drive a car so recklessly that they would run over you in the street and never stop to apologize." That is, just like the Baudelaire children themselves, brilliant.
It's not fair, of course, to criticize a movie for not being strictly true to its source; the two are separate works and deserve to stand or fall on their own. But it ought to be noted when a film destroys the main thing that made a book intriguing. How does Lemony Snicket, the movie, stand on its own terms? Well, watching it is a lot like watching most other big-budget kid movies. It's trying so hard to hack out a space in the pantheon of favorites that you can hear it hyperventilating. Everything is big: the obsessively detailed sets, the immense special effects, Carrey's sweeping gestures. You have to admire it, just for its audacity. I liked the interiors a lot, particularly Aunt Josephine's home overhanging a stormy sea, and Count Olaf's car with its reel-to-reel tape deck in the dash. Carrey's famed rubber face is back, after being given a well-deserved rest in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and what with the leering and smirking and posing the effect is much like young Robin Williams (especially when he does a Popeye-like turn as a sailor). It's entertaining, sure.
Less appealing is what's been done with baby Sunny (portrayed by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). In the book she doesn't do much except bite things with her four sharp little teeth. Here her burbles have been given sassy subtitles, like "She's the mayor of Crazy Town," and "Bite me." And I'm not completely comfortable with Violet (Emily Browning), a 14-year-old whose plump lips look a little too inviting. Liam Aiken as 12-year-old Klaus, however, was excellent, appropriately level-headed and indignant, and became my favorite character in the movie.
Klaus hearkened back to what this movie could have been if it had attempted to replicate the quirky appeal of the books. The key there is that the children are not made too appealing. We can bear the terrible situations they get into, because we're stepped back a bit. Compare other black-comedy treatments that involved children, like the blank-faced unfortunates depicted in Edward Gorey's alphabet ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears"), or Gomez Addams's melancholy daughter Wednesday. Handler likewise keeps us at a distance; when Sunny is introduced as a newly orphaned two-year-old baby, our rush of empathy is immediately countered by the words "who bites."
But the film decided to shoot straight for the conventional, forcing us to empathize with the kids and invest in them, and to treat the danger as truly threatening. Here Sunny bites, all right, and it's transformed into a talent of superhero proportions, capable of contributing to her siblings' lifesaving schemes. Even worse, the film prods us along to a semi-happy ending with a warmly encouraging message, something Handler promised never to inflict. The children are instructed at the end that there is really "much more good than bad" in life and that "what seems a series of unfortunate events may be the first steps of a journey" (steps of a journey! Deliver me!) and that their capacity to "make a sanctuary, no matter how small" proves that "the Baudelaires are very fortunate indeed."
Please. I guess this is what you have to do if you want to be sure of selling a movie to vast numbers of children. You have to give them a familiar outline they can recognize, and not leave them with an ambiguous or unsettling conclusion. Well, you could take a chance on doing something original, and sometimes an audience can surprise you by being pretty intelligent, and appreciating something that breaks out of formulaic bounds. But it wouldn't be a sure thing, and a film like that might not make as much money. Plus you'd have to forego the bucks from AFLAC for product placement. Two roads diverged, and Dreamworks took the one more traveled by.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR's Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.