A Series of Unfortunate Events
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a series of thirteen novels written by American author Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket. Although they are classified "children's novels", the books often have a dark, mysterious feeling to them. The books follow the turbulent lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. After their parents' death in a fire, the children are placed in the custody of a murderous relative, Count Olaf, who attempts to steal their inheritance and, later, orchestrates numerous disasters with the help of his accomplices as the children attempt to flee. As the plot progresses, the Baudelaires gradually confront further mysteries surrounding their family and deep conspiracies involving a secret society known as V.F.D., with connections to Olaf, their parents, and many other relatives. The series is narrated by Lemony Snicket, who dedicates each of his works to his deceased love interest, Beatrice, and often attempts to dissuade the reader from reading the Baudelaires' story.
The Bad Beginning
The Reptile Room
The Wide Window
The Miserable Mill
The Austere Academy
The Ersatz Elevator
The Vile Village
The Hostile Hospital
The Carnivorous Carnival
The Slippery Slope
The Grim Grotto
The Penultimate Peril
|Cover artist||Brett Helquist|
|Genre||Gothic fiction, absurdist fiction, mystery, comedy-drama, children's fiction, black comedy|
Egmont (UK only)
|Published||September 30, 1999 – October 13, 2006|
Characterized by Victorian Gothic tones and absurdist textuality, the books are noted for their dark humor, sarcastic storytelling, and anachronistic elements, as well as frequent cultural and literary allusions. They have been classified as postmodern and metafictional writing, with the plot evolution throughout the later novels being cited as an exploration of the psychological process of transition from the idyllic innocence of childhood to the moral complexity of maturity. Likewise, the final installments of the series are also acknowledged for their escalatingly intricate ethical ambiguity toward philosophical ambivalence, as the nature of some of the Baudelaires' actions becomes increasingly harder to discern from those of their antagonist counterparts and more characters are revealed to be responsible for permanent wrongdoing, despite their identification with the self-proclaimed good side of the tale.
Since the release of the first novel, The Bad Beginning, in September 1999, the books have gained significant popularity, critical acclaim, and commercial success worldwide, spawning a film, a video game, assorted merchandise and a television series on Netflix. The main thirteen books in the series have collectively sold more than 60 million copies and have been translated into 41 languages. Several companion books set in the same universe of the series have also been released, including Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, The Beatrice Letters and the noir prequel tetralogy All the Wrong Questions, which chronicles Snicket's childhood.
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. Some are mentioned, however. 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. 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 series follows the adventures of three siblings called the Baudelaire orphans. Snicket explains that very few positive things happen to the children. Violet Baudelaire, the eldest, is fourteen when the series begins and is an inventor. Klaus Baudelaire, the middle child, is twelve when the series begins; he loves books and is an extraordinary speed reader with a first-class eidetic memory. Sunny Baudelaire is a baby in the beginning of the series, and enjoys biting things with her abnormally large teeth; she develops a love for cooking later in the series. All of the orphans have an allergy for peppermints stated in The Wide Window, Where Violet gets red and itchy skin, Klaus's tongue swells up, and Both happen to Sunny.
The children are orphaned 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 non-dominant 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 one of his murders. 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 abbreviation 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.
The author of the series, Daniel Handler, 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".
Recurring themes and concepts
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. The last book in the series, The End, contains two stories: The End, which has 13 chapters, and a separate "book" that is titled Chapter Fourteen.
The location of each book's 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 or 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 one 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.
There is a full page picture at the end of each book, showing a hint or clue about the content of 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. The same picture is used at the start of the succeeding book. This practice continued at the end of The End which shows a boat sailing off into the sunset and at the start of Chapter Fourteen. The picture at the end of Chapter Fourteen includes a shape of a question mark.
Following the picture 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 and simply has "The end of THE END can be found at the end of THE END." There is no letter after Chapter Fourteen.
Each book begins with a dedication to a woman named Beatrice, and references to her are made by Snicket throughout the series, describing her as the woman he still loves while emphasizing the fact that she apparently died long ago. At the end of the Chapter Fourteen epilogue, it is revealed that Beatrice was the Baudelaires' late mother, who married their father after an unknown event caused her to return Snicket's engagement ring, alongside a two-hundred page book explaining all the reasons she could not marry him.
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, while in an auction on which the plot hinges, Lot 49 is skipped, i.e. not cried, an allusion to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Both Salinger and Pynchon were reputed at one time not to be actual persons. The ninth book in the series, The Carnivorous Carnival, takes place at Caligari Carnival; the carnival's name is a nod to the 1920 silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Subsequently, many of the inhabitants of the island in which the Baudelaires find themselves on in The End are named after characters from The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare, while some are named after characters from Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick and others after general nautical or island-based literature.
The name of Beatrice, Snicket's dedicatee, 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 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 colors of the cover. The hardcover books were printed with a deckle edge.
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.
All the Wrong Questions
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 titled 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.
In other media
Netflix, in association with Paramount Television, announced in November 2014 its plans to adapt the books into an original TV series with 25 total episodes spanning 3 seasons, with 2 episodes dedicated to each book, with the exception of the 13th book, The End. Author Daniel Handler serves 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 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 January 13, 2017. A Series of Unfortunate Events was renewed for a second season, which was released on March 30, 2018, and consisted of ten episodes that adapt books five through nine of the novel series. The television series was also renewed for a third and final season, which was released on January 1, 2019, consisting of seven episodes that adapted the final four books. The last book, The End, was adapted into one episode instead of the standard two episodes.
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 financially successful, but received criticism over its comical tone.
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.
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.'"
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is 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) that was released in 2004 by Adrenium Games and Activision for PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, Game Boy Advance, and PC. 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 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. and the way to confirm the allegiance of a V.F.D. member.
A separate casual game titled A Series of Unfortunate Events was published by Oberon Media the same year as a different tie-in to the books. Set in Count Olaf's house, the game involves his six associates and many objects they use in Olaf's efforts to capture the children. Gameplay includes three difficulty levels and two game modes: Deduction Junction and Swap Monster. In Deduction Junction, clues are provided for which pictures of people and objects should be kept or discarded. In Swap Monster, the player chooses two people or objects to swap positions until they are in the correct place, with Count Olaf randomly appearing to temporarily hinder the player's progress. A multiple choice quiz is presented at the end of each round, based on events in the books.
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.
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.
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 imparts "its own vision of ethics".
The series has come under criticism from some school districts for its dark themes. Criticisms include the suggested incest in Olaf's attempt to marry his distant cousin Violet in The Bad Beginning (though his motivation was not sexual but financial). Use of the words "damn" and "hell" in The Reptile Room has also been criticized. Handler later commented that the use of "damn" 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.
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.
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People aren't either wicked or noble," the hook-handed man said. "They're like chef's salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.
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I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely boring. If you are looking for a good time, you would have a better time watching a motion picture starring a handsome count. – Count Olaf
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