The series follows the adventures of three siblings: the Baudelaire orphans. Snicket explains that very few positive things happen to the children, but much misfortune befalls them. Violet Baudelaire, the eldest, is 14 when the series begins and is an inventor. Klaus Baudelaire, the middle child, is twelve when the books begin; he loves books and is an extraordinary speed reader who can remember everything he ever read after reading it only once. Sunny Baudelaire is a baby in the beginning of the series, and enjoys biting things; she develops a love for cooking later in the series.
The children become orphans after their parents are killed in a fire at the family mansion. In The Bad Beginning, they are sent to live with a distant relative named Count Olaf after briefly living with Mr. Poe, a banker in charge of the orphans’ affairs. The siblings discover that Count Olaf intends to get his hands on the enormous Baudelaire fortune, which Violet is to inherit when she reaches 18 years of age. In the first book, he attempts to marry Violet, pretending it is the storyline for his latest play, but the plan falls through when Violet uses her left hand to sign the marriage document.
In the following six books, Olaf disguises himself, finds the children and, with help from his many accomplices, tries to steal their fortune, committing arson, murder, and other crimes. In the eighth through twelfth books, the orphans adopt disguises while on the run from the police after Count Olaf frames them for his own murder. The Baudelaires routinely try to get help from Mr. Poe, but he, like many of the adults in the series, is oblivious to the dangerous reality of the children's situation.
As the books continue, the children uncover more of the mystery surrounding their parents’ deaths and find that their parents were in a secret organization, V.F.D., along with several other adults they meet. After the acronym first appears at the end of The Austere Academy, the siblings find several red herrings that share the initials. They then start to meet “volunteers” and gradually learn about the organization, although they discover several mysteries that are never explained. In The End, the children find a diary written by their parents that answers many of their questions but also raises many more. The children leave with another young orphan on a boat from a remote island at the end of the series, their fates left unknown.Count Olaf: A tall, thin evil man. He is selfish and materialistic. After briefly acting as the Baudelaires' guardian, Olaf spends the series disguising and hiding himself to secretly follow the children to steal their large inheritance. He runs an "acting troupe", consisting of henchmen and associates who serve him.
Violet Baudelaire: The eldest Baudelaire child, Violet is a young inventor. When she has an idea for a new invention, she will tie her hair up with her ribbon. She is a mature young woman who will inherit an enormous fortune upon turning eighteen.
Klaus Baudelaire: Klaus is the middle child and is known for his vast love of reading. He wears glasses and is known for being able to quote verbatim many, many extracts from non-fiction books he has read.
Sunny Baudelaire: The youngest, Sunny, is a teething toddler, with four long, sharp teeth which she sometimes must use to defend herself, although they do not always protect her. She uses biting and her teeth to help her siblings at the beginning of the series, but as she grows up she develops an ability to cook well. In the early books, Sunny speaks in short utterances that only her siblings understand, although her English improves as the series progresses.
Arthur Poe: A banker in charge of the Baudelaire's estate. It is also his responsibility to take care of their fortune and the orphans' guardianship. He is distinguished by a congenital cough, purblind demeanor, and general inefficacy in caring for the children.
Esmé Squalor: Count Olaf's villainous girlfriend, also obsessed with gaining the Baudelaire's fortune. Prior to the events of the series, she was a professional stage actress and member of V.F.D. Esmé is distinguished by her tall height and her obsession with high fashion.
Acting Troupe: A group of people who work with Count Olaf. These characters help Olaf with his schemes, often by disguising themselves as well. The group includes:
The Hook-Handed Man
The Two Ladies With White Powder On Their Faces
The Bald One With The Long Nose
The Fat One Who Looks Like Neither A Man Nor A Woman
The author of the series, Daniel Handler (who uses the pseudonym Lemony Snicket), has said in an interview with The A.V. Club that he decided to write a children's story when he was trying to find a publisher for his first novel, The Basic Eight. One of the publishers, HarperCollins, passed on The Basic Eight, but they were interested in him writing a story for children. Handler thought it was a terrible idea at first, but met with the publishers to discuss the book. They challenged him to write the book he wished he could have read when he was 10. He retooled a manuscript he had for a mock-Gothic book for adults, which became "the story of children growing through all these terrible things", a concept which the publishers liked, to Handler's surprise.
The first book in the series was The Bad Beginning, released September 30, 1999. When asked in a Moment Magazine interview about the Baudelaire children and Handler’s own Jewish heritage he replied, “Oh yeah! Yes. The Baudelaires are Jewish! I guess we would not know for sure but we would strongly suspect it, not only from their manner but from the occasional mention of a rabbi or bar mitzvah or synagogue. The careful reader will find quite a few rabbis.”
This series is most commonly classified as children's fiction, but it has also been classified in more specific genres such as gothic fiction, or some variety thereof, whether it is mock-gothic, a satire of gothic literature, neo-Victorian or "suburban gothic".
Another genre that the series has been described as is absurdist fiction, because of its strange characters, improbable storylines, and black comedy.
The books seem to be set in an alternate, "timeless" world with stylistic similarities to both the 19th century and the 1930s, though with contemporary, and seemingly anachronistic scientific knowledge. For instance, in The Hostile Hospital, the Baudelaire children send a message via Morse code on a telegraph, yet in the general store they are in, there is fiber-optic cable for sale. An "advanced computer" appears in The Austere Academy; this computer's exact functions are never stated, as its only use in the book is to show a picture of Count Olaf. In a companion book to the series, The Unauthorized Autobiography, the computer is said to be capable of advanced forgery. The setting of the world has been compared to Edward Scissorhands in that it is "suburban gothic". Although the film version sets the Baudelaires' mansion in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, real places rarely appear in the books, although some are mentioned. For example, in The Ersatz Elevator, a book in Jerome and Esmé Squalor's library was titled Trout, In France They're Out; there are also references to the fictional nobility of North American regions, specifically the Duchess of Winnipeg and the King of Arizona, perhaps allusions to the setting of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slapstick, which features similar North American fictional nobility. Interestingly, Vonnegut's novel focuses on artificial family as the cure for loneliness and strife, which seems to also be the aim of the "artificial family" of V.F.D.
The plots of the first seven books follow the same basic pattern: the Baudelaires go to a new guardian in a new location, where Count Olaf appears and attempts to steal their fortune. The books following pick up where the previous book ended. There are thirteen books in the series and each book has thirteen chapters, with the exception of "Book the Fourteenth": a single chapter found at the end of The End. The location of each book's critical events is usually identified in the book's title; the first twelve book titles are alliterative. In most books, the children's skills are used to help them defeat Count Olaf's plots; for instance, Violet invents a lockpick in The Reptile Room. Occasionally, the children's roles switch or other characters use their skills to assist the Baudelaires (e.g. Quigley's cartography skills help Violet and Klaus in The Slippery Slope).
Lemony Snicket frequently explains words and phrases in incongruous detail. When describing a word the reader may not be aware of, he typically says “a word which here means ...,” sometimes with a humorous definition, or one that is relevant only to the events at hand (for example, he describes “adversity” as meaning “Count Olaf”).
Despite the general absurdity of the books’ storyline, Lemony Snicket continuously maintains that the story is true and that it is his “solemn duty” to record it. Snicket often goes off into humorous or satirical asides, discussing his opinions of various matters, or his personal life. The details of his supposed personal life are largely absurd, incomplete, and not explained in detail. For example, Snicket claims to have been chased by an angry mob for 16 miles. Some details of his life are explained somewhat in a supplement to the series, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.
Lemony Snicket’s narration and commentary is characteristically cynical and despondent. In the blurb for each book, Snicket warns of the misery the reader may experience in reading about the Baudelaire orphans and suggests abandoning the books altogether. However, he also provides ample comic relief with wry, dark humor. In the excerpt for The Grim Grotto, he writes: “... the horrors [the Baudelaire children] encounter are too numerous to list, and you wouldn’t even want me to describe the worst of it, which includes mushrooms, a desperate search for something lost, a mechanical monster, a distressing message from a lost friend and tap-dancing.” Snicket's narration has been described as "self-conscious" and "post-modern".
Snicket translates for the youngest Baudelaire orphan, Sunny, who in the early books almost solely uses words or phrases that make sense only to her siblings. As the series progresses, her speech often contains disguised meanings. Some words are spelled phonetically: 'surchmi' in The Slippery Slope and 'Kikbucit?' in The End; some are spelled backwards: 'edasurc' in The Carnivorous Carnival, and 'cigam' in The Miserable Mill. Some contain references to culture or people: for instance, when Sunny says "Busheney" (combining the last names of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, presumably), it is followed by the definition of "you are a vile man who has no regard for anyone else". Some words Sunny uses are foreign, such as "Shalom", "Sayonara" or "Arrete". Some are more complex, such as when she says "Akrofil, meaning, 'they were not afraid of heights'", which phonetically translates to acrophile, meaning one who loves heights. She begins to use standard English words towards the end of the books; one of her longer sentences being "I'm not a baby" in The Slippery Slope.
When describing a character whom the Baudelaires have met before, Snicket often describes the character first and does not reveal the name of the character until they have been thoroughly described. Lemony Snicket starts each book with a “post-modern dissection of the reading experience” before linking it back to how he presents the story of the Baudelaires and what their current situation is. Snicket often uses alliteration to name locations, as well as book titles, throughout the story. Many of the books start with a theme being introduced that is continually referenced throughout the book—such as the repeated comparisons of the words “nervous” and “anxious” in The Ersatz Elevator, the consistent use of the phrase “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” in The Slippery Slope and the descriptions of the water cycle in The Grim Grotto.
A theme that becomes more prevalent as the series continues is the simultaneous importance and worthlessness of secrets. In the final book, The End, the concept is especially important, as demonstrated by a several-page-long discussion of the phrase “in the dark.” The children hear of a massive schism within the organization of V.F.D., which was once noble but became filled with corruption and split into two sides, “volunteers” and “villains.” While many of the critical plot points are given answers, Snicket explains that no story can be fully devoid of questions as every story is intertwined with numerous others and every character’s history is shared in a great web of mysteries and unfortunate events that make up the world’s legacy, making it impossible for anyone to know all the answers to every question. The Baudelaire children and Count Olaf’s story is said to be merely a fragment of a much bigger story between numerous characters with the central connection being the organization of V.F.D.
Social commentary is a major element in the books, which often comment on the seemingly inescapable follies of human nature. The books consistently present the Baudelaire children as free-thinking and independent, while the adults around them obey authority and succumb to mob psychology, peer pressure, ambition, and other social ills. A high account is given to learning: those who are “well read” are often sympathetic characters, while those who shun knowledge are villains.
The books have strong themes of moral relativism, as the Baudelaires become more confused during the course of the series about the difference between right and wrong, feeling they have done wicked things themselves and struggling with the question of whether the end justifies the means. In the final book, in an allusion to the Book of Genesis, a snake offers the children a life-giving apple (which the other characters in The End refuse to eat despite the fact that it is a cure for a fatal illness).
Evil characters are shown to have sympathetic characteristics and often have led difficult lives. Similarly, good characters’ flaws become major problems. Almost every major character in the books has lived a life as difficult as that of the Baudelaires, especially the villains. The books highlight the inevitability of temptation and moral decision-making, regardless of external situation. This indicates that regardless of one’s outside influences, one always has the final choice in whether they will be good or bad. Characters that make brave decisions to fight back and take charge are almost always “good,” and characters that just go along end up as “bad.” However, some characters suggest that people are neither good nor bad, but a mix of both.
At the end of each book, there is a letter to the editor, which explains to the editor how to get a manuscript of the next book. Snicket is writing from the location of the next book and usually reveals its title. Snicket notes that the editors will find various objects along with the manuscript, all of them having some impact in the story. Starting with the fourth book (which previews the fifth), each letter has a layout relating to the next book, such as torn edges, fancy stationery, sopping wet paper, or telegram format. The letters change dramatically starting with the letter at the end of The Hostile Hospital—for this preview letter, the letter is ripped to shreds and only a few scraps remain. The remaining letters are difficult to read, and some do not reveal the title. The final letter appears at the end of The End, previewing the epilogue titled Chapter Fourteen.
There is also a full page picture at the end of each book, showing a hint to the next book. This may be showing a flyer or piece of paper drifting by, though sometimes by a significant object: a snake appears at the end of The Bad Beginning, referring to Montgomery's snake collection in the following book.
Each book begins with a dedication to Beatrice, and references to this woman are made by Snicket throughout the series. At the end of the epilogue, it is revealed that Beatrice was the Baudelaires' late mother.
To see more examples of allusions to literature and the real world in A Series of Unfortunate Events, see the individual article for any book in the series.
While the books are marketed primarily to children, they are written with adult readers in mind as well; the series features numerous references more likely to make sense to adults, such as allusions to Monty Python (the Baudelaire children's uncle Monty has a large snake collection, including a python, and a reference to the Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit sketch).
Many of the characters’ names allude to other fictional works or real people with macabre connections; locations may also allude to fiction, or contain foreign or obscure words with negative connotations. Lake Lachrymose appears in The Wide Window; “lachrymose” means “tearful.” As the series progresses, more literature appears in the series—either through quotes, explicit mentions or both. For instance, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is important to the plot of The Grim Grotto, the eleventh book. The Baudelaire orphans are named after Charles Baudelaire; Violet's name also comes from the T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, specifically its verses concerning the “violet hour,” and Sunny and Klaus take their first names from Claus and Sunny von Bülow, while Mr. Poe is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe (his sons are named Edgar and Albert). In the seventh installment, The Vile Village, Count Olaf’s disguise, Detective Dupin, is an allusion to C. Auguste Dupin, a fictional detective created by Edgar Allan Poe.
Isadora and Duncan Quagmire are named after Isadora Duncan, a notorious dancer also remembered for her unusual death by strangulation when her scarf entangled around the wheels of the open car in which she was a passenger. In the fourth book, The Miserable Mill, Dr. Georgina Orwell is a reference to British author George Orwell. Orwell finished his famous book 1984 in 1948, and in the sixth book, The Ersatz Elevator, it is not clear if the skyscraper in which Esmé and Jerome Squalor live has 48 or 84 stories; The Squalors’ names reference Jerome David "J. D." Salinger and his short story For Esmé – with Love and Squalor. In book nine, The Carnivorous Carnival, the story takes place at Caligari Carnival; this is a nod to the 1920 film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Also, most of the inhabitants of the island in which the Baudelaires find themselves on in the final novel, The End, are characters named after The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare.
Beatrice may be an allusion to the poem La Beatrice by Charles Baudelaire. The poem references an “actor without a job,” like the actor Count Olaf. The poem also begins with the line “In a burnt, ash-grey land without vegetation,” similar to the Baudelaire mansion burning down at the beginning of the series. The name Beatrice could also be an allusion to Italian poet Dante. Dante dedicated all of his works to "Beatrice," with whom he was obsessed, and who was also dead, like Snicket's Beatrice.
The series includes thirteen novels as follows:
- The Bad Beginning (1999)
- The Reptile Room (1999)
- The Wide Window (2000)
- The Miserable Mill (2000)
- The Austere Academy (2000)
- The Ersatz Elevator (2001)
- The Vile Village (2001)
- The Hostile Hospital (2001)
- The Carnivorous Carnival (2002)
- The Slippery Slope (2003)
- The Grim Grotto (2004)
- The Penultimate Peril (2005)
- The End (2006)
There are books that accompany the series, such as The Beatrice Letters, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, and The Puzzling Puzzles; journals The Blank Book and The Notorious Notations; and short materials such as The Dismal Dinner and 13 Shocking Secrets You'll Wish You Never Knew About Lemony Snicket. The books were at one point published at the rate of three or four books per year. The endpapers were "designed in a suitably Victorian style", with cloth binding on the spines matching the colours of the cover.
A paperback release of the series, featuring restyled covers, new illustrations and a serial supplement entitled The Cornucopian Cavalcade happened with The Bad Beginning: or, Orphans!, The Reptile Room: or, Murder!, and The Wide Window: or, Disappearance!, but stopped after the third.
Humorous quotes from the series were used in a book published under the Snicket name, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid.
In an interview with the 667 Dark Avenue fansite, Daniel Handler alluded to more Lemony Snicket books focused on the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Every book in the main series has a clue in a form of a picture about the next book at the end of the book that can be seen before the letters to the editor. At the end of "Chapter Fourteen", however, a shape of a question mark is seen in the picture.
Lemony Snicket's All the Wrong Questions is a four-part young adult series focused on Snicket's childhood working for V.F.D. It is set in the same universe as A Series of Unfortunate Events and features several of the same characters and locations. The first book was entitled Who Could That Be at This Hour?, and was released in October 2012. The second, When Did You See Her Last?, was released in October 2013, and the third, Shouldn't You Be in School?, was released in September 2014. The final book, Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? was released on September 29, 2015.
Most of the series of unabridged audio books are read by British actor Tim Curry, though Handler as Lemony Snicket reads books 3 to 5. Of narrating the audio books, Handler has said: "It was very, very hard. It was unbelievably arduous. It was the worst kind of arduous." As such, future narrating duties were handed back to Curry, of whom Handler states: "he does a splendid job". The "Dear Reader" blurb is usually read by Handler (as Snicket) at the beginning, although it is missing in The Hostile Hospital. Handler usually reads the 'To my Kind Editor' blurb about the next book at the end. Starting at 'The Carnivorous Carnival' there is another actor who replaces Handler in reading the two blurbs, although they are skipped entirely in The Grim Grotto. All of the recordings include a loosely related song by The Gothic Archies, a novelty band of which Handler is a member, featuring lyrics by Handler's Magnetic Fields bandmate Stephin Merritt.
In October 2006, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events by The Gothic Archies was released. The album is a collection of thirteen songs written and performed by Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields), each one originally appearing on one of the corresponding thirteen audiobooks of the series. Two bonus songs are included.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a film adaptation of the first three titles in the series, mixing the various events and characters into one story. It was released on December 17, 2004. Directed by Brad Silberling, it stars Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, Billy Connolly as Uncle Monty, Emily Browning as Violet, Liam Aiken as Klaus, Timothy Spall as Mr. Poe, and Jude Law as the voice of Lemony Snicket. The film was successful, however it was also criticized because the tone was comical, when the books were solemn and serious with occasional wry humor.
Considering the success of the movie, the director and some of the lead actors hinted that they were keen on making a sequel, but no script was written.
When I took the decision to take the movie I said I'd obviously do it with the right to refusal, I'm not going to give in to anything. I asked the studio how they were going to deal with the sequel. But they didn't want to talk about it until the first film was out. It's amazing; a script has not yet been worked on for the sequel, which I find a bit baffling.
Browning has said that further films would have to be produced quickly, as the children do not age much throughout the book series.
In 2008, Daniel Handler stated in a Bookslut Interview that another film was in the works, but had been delayed by corporate shake-ups at Paramount Pictures. In June 2009, Silberling confirmed he still talked about the project with Handler, and suggested the sequel be a stop motion film because the lead actors have grown too old. "In an odd way, the best thing you could do is actually have Lemony Snicket say to the audience, 'Okay, we pawned the first film off as a mere dramatization with actors. Now I'm afraid I'm going to have to show you the real thing.'"
Netflix, in association with Paramount Television, announced in November 2014 its plans to adapt the books into an original TV series with 26 total episodes spanning 3 seasons, with 2 episodes dedicated to each book. Author Daniel Handler will serve as a writer and executive producer.
On September 4, 2015, it was announced that filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld and True Blood showrunner Mark Hudis had agreed to helm the series. Hudis would serve as showrunner, Sonnenfeld as director, and both as executive producers. Daniel Handler is penning the scripts. On December 3, 2015, an open casting call was announced for the roles of Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, with the casting call confirming that the series would begin production in March 2016.
In January 2016, Netflix announced that Hudis had left the project and they have not yet named a replacement showrunner. However, it was announced that Sonnenfeld and Handler were both still on board, and that Neil Patrick Harris had been cast as Count Olaf and Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are cast as Violet and Klaus.
In March 2016, K. Todd Freeman and Patrick Warburton were cast as Mr. Poe and Lemony Snicket respectively. The first season, consisting of eight episodes that cover the first four books, was released worldwide on Netflix on Friday, January 13, 2017. A Series of Unfortunate Events was renewed for a second season, which is planned to consist of ten episodes that adapts books five through nine of the novel series, and a third season is planned to adapt the remaining books.
A video game based on the books and film (more so the film, as the name and many plot elements seen in the movie but not the book are seen) was released in 2004 by Adrenium Games and Activision for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, Game Boy Advance, and the PC as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. The player plays as all three orphans at points in the game, and encounters characters such as Mr. Poe, Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine, along with villains such as Count Olaf, the hook-handed man, the white-faced women, and the bald-headed man. The game, like the movie, follows only the first three books in the series. Although never mentioned in the game there are some references to V.F.D. such as while in the first level a package is delivered from the "Very Fast Delivery Service." The note attached to the package also reads at the end "P.S. The world is quiet here," which is the motto of V.F.D.
A board game based on the books was distributed by Mattel in 2004, prior to the movie. The Perilous Parlor Game is for 2–4 players, ages 8 and up. One player assumes the role of Count Olaf, and the other players play the Baudelaire children. Count Olaf's objective in the game is to eliminate the guardian, while the children try to keep the guardian alive. The game employs Clever Cards, Tragedy Cards, Secret Passage Tiles, and Disguise Tiles in play.
The Catastrophic Card Game is the second game based on the books. In this card game, players are looking to complete sets of characters. There are 4 different sets: The Baudelaire Orphans, Count Olaf in Disguise, Olaf's Henchmen and the Orphans Confidants. Players take turns drawing a card from either the draw pile or the top card from the discard pile in hopes of completing their sets. For 2–4 players, ages 14 and under.
Reviews for A Series of Unfortunate Events have generally been positive, with reviewers saying that the series is enjoyable for children and adults alike, and that it brings fresh and adult themes to children's stories. The Times Online refer to the books as "a literary phenomenon", and discuss how the plight of the Baudelaire orphans helps children cope with loss—citing the rise in sales post September 11, 2001 as evidence. Although the series has often been compared to Harry Potter due to the young heroes and the sales of the two series, reviewer Bruce Butt feels that the series' tone is closer to Roald Dahl and Philip Ardagh. Handler acknowledges Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl as influences. Mackey attributes the series' success to the "topsy-turvy moral universe". Langbauer feels that the series "offers a critique of the pieties" of earlier generations and "imparting its own vision of ethics".
The series has come under criticism from some school districts for its dark themes, citing objections to the suggested incest (referring to Olaf's attempt to marry his distant cousin Violet in The Bad Beginning, although his motivation was not sexual in nature, but rather an attempt to gain the Baudelaire fortune) and the words "damn" and "hell" being said in The Reptile Room. Handler later commented that the word's use was "precipitated by a long discussion of how one should never say this word, since only a villain would do so vile a thing! This is exactly the lily-liveredness of children's books that I can't stand." Access to the books was similarly restricted at Katy ISD Elementary School in Katy, Texas.
The series has also been criticized for formulaic and repetitive storytelling.
A Series of Unfortunate Events has been printed in 41 different languages, selling at least sixty-five million copies as of 2015.
In addition to its strong reviews, The Bad Beginning won multiple literary awards, including the Colorado Children's Book Award, the Nevada Young Readers Award and the Nene Award. It was also a finalist for the Book Sense Book of the Year. Its sequels have continued this trend, garnering multiple awards and nominations. Among these are three IRA/CBC Children's Choice Awards, which it received for The Wide Window, The Vile Village, and The Hostile Hospital; a best book prize at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, and a 2006 Quill Book Award, both for The Penultimate Peril. While not technically awards, The Ersatz Elevator was named a Book Sense 76 Pick, and The Grim Grotto is an Amazon.com Customers' Favorite.