Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (PG)

4.00

A happy misfortune

While children themselves are often comfortable with the dark and the brutal, parents tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to deciding where to draw lines. And, since it is parents who cough up for cinema tickets and DVDs, when Hollywood comes to adapt children's literature for the screen it does its best to bleach all the darkness and brutality out it, even if this means reversing the point of the story completely.

While children themselves are often comfortable with the dark and the brutal, parents tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to deciding where to draw lines. And, since it is parents who cough up for cinema tickets and DVDs, when Hollywood comes to adapt children's literature for the screen it does its best to bleach all the darkness and brutality out it, even if this means reversing the point of the story completely.

Take Stuart Little: in EB White's novel, the mouse hero is born, without explanation, to a human family. When Hollywood got hold of it, though, they dodged the implied gynaecological and marital peculiarities by having Stuart adopted. As a result, a book about feeling like an alien in your own family became a film about being accepted no matter how different you are. Or take Shrek, which you probably know as a story about a rough diamond of an ogre being softened by true love: the franchise borrows its title and colour scheme from a picture book by William Steig, in which a morally repellent ogre finds the ogress of his dreams and rejoices that together they can be twice as vile and antisocial.

Given this record, fans could be forgiven for unease about Hollywood's treatment of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a sequence of novels dedicated to permutations of the theme of innocence pursued across an indifferent universe by remorseless malignity. Lemony Snicket's highly popular books - 11 of them so far - relate the disasters befalling three attractive, resourceful orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire who, following the death of their parents in a fire that also destroys their home, are handed on from distant relative to distant relative. At every turn they are hounded by the appalling Count Olaf, supposedly another relative, who is desperate to lay his hands on the fortune they will inherit when Violet reaches majority. The appeal of the books rests on their studied air of morbid sophistication. The names give a clue to Snicket's intentions - Klaus and Sunny as in Von Bulow (though that Klaus spelt it with a C), Baudelaire as in Les Fleurs du Mal - "poète sinistre, ennemi des familles". And for this, they have cast Jim Carrey in the lead?

Incredible as it may seem, though, Brad Silberling's film reproduces the books' atmosphere to a nicety; indeed, at times Silberling manages to keep up the tone rather more successfully than Snicket does. Robert Gordon's screenplay uses the source material intelligently, slashing away at extraneous plot and repositioning a climax, while still remaining faithful to the dialogue. He can't, of course, reproduce much of Snicket's laboriously melancholy narration, but Rick Heinrichs's designs do a lot of that work: gothic spires push upwards out of swirling mists into louring copper skies; wrought iron sprouts from every eave and cornice - it comes as no surprise to learn that Heinrichs was art director on Tim Burton's Batman Returns. But Silberling manages to inject an unexpected gentleness into the film: one scene, which finds the orphans adrift on a lake infested by man-eating leeches, reminded me powerfully of the dreamy night-time pursuit down the Ohio in The Night of the Hunter, another - far greater - film about children fleeing a malevolent adult.

Carrey is never going to be one of my favourite actors: at least here his compulsive mugging is comparatively restrained. The weight of the film falls on the children, and they are superb. As Violet - clad in black even before her parents are dead, as if bereavement was entirely in keeping with her world view - Emily Browning is troublingly beautiful, and preserves precisely the right placidity that is not quite passivity in the face of danger. Better still is Liam Aiken's bookish Klaus, with bags under eyes that are perpetually narrowed on the middle distance, as if absorbed in other worlds. Sunny, the sharp-toothed baby, is played by freakishly precocious twins.

They are richly supported by Timothy Spall, as their lawyer, Mr Poe (an in-joke for Baudelaire fans) and Meryl Streep as their phobic Aunt Josephine. The only weaknesses in the casting are Billy Connolly, strangely flat as the genial Uncle Monty, whose lovability marks him out for an early exit; and Jude Law, in voice-over as Lemony Snicket. His flat, south London, vowels don't match up to the fruitiness of the language - it needs a Burton or a Hopkins, someone prepared to roll their Rs and relish the diphthongs (Tim Curry does it wonderfully on the audio-books.)

The main blight on the festivities is that, as always, Hollywood can't resist adding a little uplift. The lesson the books teach is that misery is eternal, justice is arbitrary, and fate pays no attention to merit; I think it is good for children to learn this from books rather than experience. But here, the random nature of the universe is explicitly denied, Klaus at one point brazenly declaring: "Everything that happens happens for a reason" - yet again, precisely the opposite message to that embodied in the source material. Hey ho.

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments