Ink & Pixel: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I'm always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fan-base, Ink & Pixel has broadened its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy genres. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

During my adolescence, reading physical books was all the rage. It began with the Mr. Men and Little Miss books. You know the ones I'm talking about, right? There was Mr. Happy, Little Miss Sunshine, Mr. Messy, Little Miss Helpful, Mr. Cool, and many more! These charming easy-to-read volumes by Roger Hargreaves courtesy of Price Stern Sloan Publishing helped shape the manners and imaginations of several generations and they were awesome. From there it was onto books like Garfield and, of course, Calvin and Hobbes. Later, I moved on to R.L. Stine's Goosebumps and Fear Street series. All told, this line-up of influential titles isn't too shabby.

Thankfully, it appears as though quality Children's Fantasy/Horror titles have yet to go out of style. There's of course the immensely popular and critically adored Harry Potter series by author JK Rowling, the creative and adventuresome Perry Jackson and the Olympians books by Rick Riordan, and one of my personal favorites The Fairy Tale Detectives – known to many as The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley. Regrettably, the series that ties into today's film is one that I have yet to explore in print. So it appears as if we'll both be learning a thing or two as we deep dive into LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS.

I suppose we should first delve into a bit of background about this dark and comedic property. The first in a series of 13 novels by Lemony Snicket (a pen name belonging to the American author Daniel Handler), A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning was first published by Scholastic Inc. with illustrations by Brett Helquist in September of 1999. The series focuses on the mis-adventures of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire – three orphaned siblings who are placed in the care of their estranged and malevolent relative, Count Olaf. As the series continues, the children discover more sinister secrets about their parents involvement in a mysterious society known as the V.F.D. (Volunteer Fire Department). The final book in the collection, aptly titled The End was published in October of 2006.

Now on to our main event! In 2004, Nickelodeon Movies and Parkes/MacDonald Productions worked alongside Paramount pictures to produce and distribute the dark fantasy film LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Directed by Brad Silberling (CASPER, CITY OF ANGELS, LAND OF THE LOST) and starring the tremendously talented cast of Jude Law, Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, Billy Connolly, and Meryl Streep, this oddly funny film explores the lives of the three Baudelaire orphans as they try to survive the murderous advances of their inheritance-hungry Count Olaf (Carrey).

The three Baudelaire children are quite special indeed. The eldest, Violet, is a thinker and inventor. You can always tell that she's up to something by the way she ties her hair up when attempting to navigate a sticky situation. The middle child, Klaus, has read more books than most people can in three lifetimes. Able to recall any bit of information through the use of his eidetic memory, he and Violet are an unstoppable pairing of smarts when working together. And then there's the infant child, Sunny, who … well, she bites things. She does a great job of it, though! Really. If you need an ornate object fashioned from a bit of wood or a meddlesome can opened she's your girl! Unfortunately for these three, a terrible fire at the start of the film extinguished the lives of their parents, forcing the youngsters to travel from relative-to-relative in search of home and happiness.

It's when the children are left in the care of their villainous Count Olaf that things take a turn for the unfortunate. A thespian by his own design, Olaf takes the orphans into his home with the intention of killing them as soon possible in an effort to get his greedy, claw-like mitts on the storied Baudelaire fortune. Throughout the film, the kids use their intellect and ingenuity to thwart their sinister caretaker at every turn. All of that said, I apologize if you were hoping for a happy end to their tale. This is not that kind of story, and most certainly, not that sort of film.

In terms of production, LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS had quite the bit of trouble getting off the ground. Nickelodeon had purchased the rights to the series in May of 2000, but budgetary concerns saw the film engaging in a bit of duck-duck-goose when holding on to the talent attached. At first, filmmakers the likes of Terry Gilliam and even Roman Polanski were interested in lending their directorial expertise to the picture, that was before their concerns regarding the money allotted for the making of the film prompted them to bail.

In 2002, Barry Sonnenfeld was hired as the films director, his intention being to present the film as a musical of sorts. Once again, the film stumbled due to the almighty dollar and Sonnenfeld chose to leave the project. Then, in February of 2003, Brad Silberling enthusiastically signed on to direct the film. Wholly unfamiliar with the source material, Silberling quickly fell head-over-heels for the story of the Baudelaire children and went to work.

While the film visually boasts a number of outdoor settings (including the famous book locales: Briny Beach, Aunt Josephine's precariously perched seaside abode, and Count Olaf's garden theater) nearly everything you see was shot using the sound stages and back lots of Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, as well as a former NASA development facility in Downey, California. While filming at Paramount, the Lemony Snicket project earned from other filmmakers the not-so-nice nickname of LEMONY PIGGY, as the movie's production ate up 16 of the 30 stages available.

In terms of character creation, Carrey's Count Olaf character underwent a series of revisions before finalizing the appearances and voicing of each identity he assumes in his efforts to gain control over the children. Perhaps I should explain? In the film, Olaf is a man infatuated with the magic and mysteries of stage and screen. And so it is that each time his plans are foiled by the Baudelaire orphans, he assumes the likeness of another one of his “characters” in an effort to get close enough to kill them. So, you've got the core identity, Olaf, followed by his greasy Italian ophidiologist personality, Stephano, and finally, his sea-fairing Captain Sham moniker. Each of these men is entirely different from the other, yet they all retain Olaf's penchant for the bloody murder of innocent children.

In an effort to discover these characters, Silberling requested that Carrey work out the details of each while participating in a series of make-up tests. Essentially, while testing Carrey's makeup, lighting, and sound for each of the three identities, the rubber-face comedian riffed into the camera with the hope of discovering the characteristics of Olaf's varying personalities. Funnily enough, Carrey's performance was so inspired during these test sessions that a vast majority of his off-the-cuff ramblings soon became a part of the script. In fact, if you watch the test footage alongside the final cut of the film, whole sections of dialogue appear in an almost word-for-word fashion.

One of my favorite aspects of this film is seeing just how little the use of digital effects occurred throughout its 1h 48min worth of screen time. Yeah yeah, I know that the mission of this column is to focus down on effects-driven works of cinematic art, but we're not going to pay attention to the man behind the curtain today. Creators from the effects house Industrial Light & Magic were on-hand for the shooting of this fantasy adventure, creating a total of over 500 visual displays for us to drool over. The team employed the use of everything from the study of hurricane footage to new and complex lighting methods in an effort to set the movie's chilling and dreary tone. Additionally, Nexus Productions was brought into the fold and was tasked with creating the stop-motion animation used for the film's bizarre “Littlest Elf” opening credits sequence.

By the end of  LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS's theatrical run, the film had amassed a world-wide total of $209,073, 645 in box-office receipts. When stacked against the film's budget of $140 million, I can understand why plans to continue the series theatrically were re-considered. That's not to say that the film wasn't enjoyed by fans of the books series, as well as other members of the movie-going public. In fact, the film had received nominations for several categories throughout the awards season of its applicable year. Among the many, the film won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Makeup, an Art Directors Guild award for Excellence in Production Design, an award for Best Actress (Emily Browning) from the Australian Film Institute, as well as several more ranging from music to even hair-styling. Most recently, it's been announced that the series will make its triumphant return to the screen via an episodic Netflix presentation. So far, the role of Count Olaf will be played by none other than Neil Patrick Harris, while Patrick Warburton has been cast as Lemony Snicket himself.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of this film. I would also imagine that I'm not alone in thinking that even though Sonnenfeld left the project, the film still retains a bit of his style and charm – particularly in the areas of lighting and set design. And that's not a slight to Silberling, not at all. I think that he and his team of artists and creators did a phenomenal job of bringing Snicket's dark and chilling world to the big screen. The book series is considered by many to be a tad mature for its target audience, but I feel as if this movie strikes an incredible balance between the source materials notoriously unfortunate series of events and the pitch black comedy that lurks beneath its surface. I might not have any children of my own, but if I did, this would assuredly be a film that I would make a part of their early viewing experience as (hopefully) future connoisseurs of film and effects. Thank you all for reading, and I'll see you next time!


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.