July 2004

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

If You're Good, You're Not Necessarily Rewarded

There’s a certain kind of dread that comes over me whenever I find out that a movie is being made of a beloved children’s book. I trace this to the animated version of The Return of the King. The musical number sung by the orcs, “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way,” almost ruined my childhood.

Add Jim Carrey to the mix, and my sense of dread multiplies, and I’m reasonably sure that anyone who saw How the Grinch Stole Christmas understands why. So you can imagine how my heart sank when, before seeing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I saw a trailer for A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Carrey as Uncle Olaf.

I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he opened his mouth. When I read the books, I imagined Uncle Olaf having this menacingly deep voice with an elderly, vaguely British accent. In the movie, he sounds like Jim Carrey speaking in a funny voice. On top of that, instead of an old man, he looks like Jim Carrey with funny gray hair.

Ugh. Leave it to adults to ruin children’s fun.

Since The Bad Beginning was published in 1999, A Series of Unfortunate Events has been a huge smash on an almost Left Behindish level. When the New York Times published its first bestsellers list of children’s books in 2000, the five books available at the time were in the top ten.

The series follows the amusingly tragic saga of the Baudelaire children, whose parents die, leaving them wealthy, but also leaving them in the care of their evil Uncle Olaf, who is consumed with getting his hands on their inheritance. The three kids, Violent, Klaus and Sunny, are smart and always work their way out of Olaf’s fiendish plots. However, as Daniel Handler, who writes the series using the nom de plume Lemony Snicket, points out, “[The books] show that if you’re good, you’re not necessarily rewarded.”

The dark tone of the series, he said, “are a reaction to the sort of books I was given as a child: books that were relentlessly chipper and morally cheerful.” He pitched the idea to his publisher after they suggested he write a children’s book.

“I thought it was a terrible idea. But this one editor, Susan Rich, persisted, and to get her off my back as much as anything else, I said, ‘I do have this idea, but I think you’ll hate it. We’ll meet in a bar, so once you hate it, we’ll just have a drink and you won’t have wasted any time talking to me.’”

She, of course, loved the idea, and despite Handler’s misgivings about the whole project, “The books just failed to fail.”

With A Series of Unfortunate Events’ lack of failure comes controversy, and the series has its share of detractors. Its nihilism and Uncle Olaf’s abusiveness prompted a challenge to the series at Sheridan Elementary School in Houston, TX. As of this writing, a decision on the books is still pending.

Handler has also said that an elementary school in Decatur, GA, banned The Bad Beginning because some people felt it endorsed incest. One of Uncle Olaf’s plots to get his hands on the children’s inheritance is to marry his older niece Violet.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine how I can construct a villain whose actions would be unobjectionable,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. He added, “That’s called a hero.”

Parental concerns haven’t changed how kids feel about the Baudelaires, though. Handler said he was flooded with letters from concerned children after the September 11 attacks, wondering if Violet, Klaus, and Sunny had perished in the World Trade Center. He said, “It would be just their luck.”