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How Netflix’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Avoided the Usual Dangers of Franchising

How Netflix’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Avoided the Usual Dangers of Franchising

The ideal model for adapting a children’s book series to a movie franchise is, quite evidently, Harry Potter. Take a book saga that’s a proven best-seller, option all of them, lock down a cast to keep making the films on a regular schedule, and have each one be a hit because the books all contain what are essentially the same winning ingredients. It seems obvious enough, but in practice? Really, really hard to do. That’s what makes Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events such a rare gem.

Let’s remember that Harry Potter, and the other fantasy book-based screen franchise launched in the same year, The Lord of the Rings, were both huge risks at the time. Ralph Bakshi‘s previous attempt to adapt LOTR into two movies failed when the first didn’t justify a second. Had that first Harry Potter film failed, we might have only gotten one sequel. Had Lord of the Rings failed, what with all three shooting together… who knows?

Other, similar would-be franchises were not so lucky. Cirque du Freak never went beyond The Vampire’s Assistant (the unlikely but awesome casting of John C. Reilly was not appreciated enough), His Dark Materials never cinematically went beyond The Golden Compass, and even the beloved Chronic-WHAT-cles of Narnia stopped after the third film. There has been talk of restarting that one, but the kids involved are already too old to continue. Even the original Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was well received and made money, never got a sequel adapting further books in the series, mostly because nobody involved made it their first priority.

Enter Netflix. Their reboot of A Series of Unfortunate Events was billed as a TV series, but in fact the eight episodes amounted to four two-part movies, directed by honest-to-goodness big-name directors Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), Mark Palansky (Penelope) and Bo Welch (The Cat in the Hat). In effect, Netflix dropped four movies in a franchise all at once, and this effectively side-stepped the primary pitfalls of book series adaptations.

For one, nobody had to wait to see if the first one did well to greenlight a sequel. As a result, the first film didn’t need to excessively frontload the first episode, and could tell the story at a reasonable pace. A major problem with The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, is that the second book, Prince Caspian, is the most boring; its plot is literally the four main children wandering around in a forest until they meet Prince Caspian, and then watch him have a sword fight. The movie tried to augment that story a lot, but critics and audiences still complained its plot was lackluster; had the Narnia filmmakers simply been able to put out the first four books through The Silver Chair (my personal favorite and arguably the best one in the series) all in one go, things might be different. Likewise, in His Dark Materials, the third book The Amber Spyglass is far and away the best, yet it needs the first two books to set it up. Make them all at once, as the BBC is now apparently doing, and you bypass the need for part one to get unanimous approval.

Another factor is that any book series with kid heroes needs to be completed quickly before the young actors get too old, which is why it’s good news that A Series of Unfortunate Events has already been renewed for a third season, which will allow for all 13 books to be adapted with the same cast. If they were movies, that entire first season would have had to have succeeded theatrically as four separate features, and how many franchises get there? Thirteen movies would be a near-impossible dream–even the perennial Friday the 13th has only made it to 12 so far–and with lag time waiting on grosses, the Baudelaire orphans would be middle-aged by the time it was done. If you want to see how wrong that sort of thing can go, watch both Neverending Story sequels back-to-back… if you dare.

A book-faithful Neverending Story can benefit from this approach. So can Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, previously butchered cinematically as The Seeker. The Black Cauldron source books Chronicles of Prydain are due another shot. Hell, if we want to go way out on a limb, L. Ron Hubbard’s utterly bonkers 1,000-plus page Battlefield Earth can only be done this way (I met Travolta-movie director Roger Christian at a Con years ago, and he swore to me his version would get a theatrical sequel. I’m kinda thinking nope at this point).

Who knows how long Netflix can keep shelling out money for stuff like this, but if it works, the way to bring your favorite long-running book franchise to the screen may be more open than it ever was before.

Is there a fantasy book series you’d like to see go to Netflix insta-franchise? Lord Foul’s Bane? The Princess and the Goblin? The Once and Future King? We know you have thoughts. Let’s hear them in comments.

Image: Netflix

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