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.

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