I’ve got a few words for you, Lemony Snicket

WARNING: This entry containers spoilers for the Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter series.

I started reading the Lemony Snicket Books a few months ago because I was having trouble finding any good books to read and, instead, had been reading the Harry Potter Series over and over again (thank God– JK Rowling has finally announced the next book will be out in July 2005). So, somebody recommended the LS series as methadone to my HP addiction. On the surface, while the two series may seem alike– bad things happening to orphans who can do extraordinary things– the similarities don’t go much deeper than that. It’s like saying the Lord of the Rings series is the same kind of story as the Harry Potter series just because they both involve magic, wizards, and the search for an enchanted object (the ring in LOTR, the Sorceror’s Stone in the first HP book). Oh, and they both have elves. But anybody who knows about both of them knows that only a layman would think the two series are the same. That’s why when Richard Harris passed away, it didn’t necessarily make sense to have Ian McKellen replace Harris in the part of Dumbledore.

In any case, after watching the new LS movie this past Friday, I went back and reread the first three books in the series. There were a number of changes when they went from book-form to movie-form, but for the most part, the key parts were there and like most firsts in a series, most of the movie was spent establishing the characters– the Baudelaire children, Count Olaf, and Mr. Poe– and the universe they live in. And while the movie only covers the first three books, it does touch on plot points that appear later in the series, introducing the pursuit to find out exactly what VFD is and its relationship to the Baudelaire family, Count Olaf and Lemony Snicket, a mystery that soon takes over the main plot line of Count Olaf constantly trying to steal the Baudelaire fortune.

But after re-reading the first three books, I find myself wanting to interrupt Snicket’s narration to ask some questions. Yes, of course, this is a children’s novel and so there are crazy characters like Uncle Monty (real name: Montgomery Montgomery) and his reptile room, Aunt Josephine and her fear of almost everything, and of course, most fantastical of all, Count Olaf with his many disguises and weird acting troupe. However, as I read along, I asked myself the following questions:

  1. Where is child services in all of this? Mr. Poe is the executor of the Baudelaire estate, but he is not in social services. If children are actually being adopted by a new legal guardian, family or not, isn’t child services usually involved? And until they find the next of kin and a suitable home, aren’t the children supposed to stay in a foster home, not the home of their parents’ banker? And when they are placed into a new home, aren’t there regular visits by child services to check in on the new situation and upon satisfactory inspection, only then can the children be legally adopted by a new guardian? Granted, the state of child services in our society is not perfect, but Mr. Poe seems to be managing the welfare of these children with wreckless abandon.
  2. Doesn’t Count Olaf have a criminal record or something that can be used to identity him other than that one long eyebrow and that stupid tattoo on his ankle? I mean, have you people heard of fingerprints, DNA, anything? Maybe if the Baudelaires lived in California, they could arrest Count Olaf, collect his DNA, and then let him walk on a technicality. Maybe then next time, Mr. Poe won’t be so stupidly fooled by an eye patch and a peg leg.
  3. Here’s another one– Aunt Josephine is afraid to turn on the radiator, cook with the stove, and open doors using doorknobs, but even if all she has is cold cucumber soup all the time, doesn’t she eventually have to chop up the cucumbers with a knife, a blender, a CuisineArt, something?
  4. Why are these children never in school? They spend some time at a prep school later, but nobody seems to be interested in sending them to school, although you are required to attend school until the age of 18 by law.

Of course, some of these questions become irrelevant because you have to remember the universe in which the LS series exists– that is, not a specific one. There’s no specific time and real world location indicators in the books. For example, in the HP universe, the wizard world exists in the same universe as the Muggle world– we know the Dursley’s live in Surrey and the fifth book is predominantly set in London where the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix and the Ministry of Magic are both located. And while Hogwarts was founded thousands of years ago, we know that we’re in relatively modern times because the characters mention how Muggles make up for not having magic by inventing electricity, computers, and the like. Moreover, while Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade and all of that are exclusive to wizardkind, there is occasional overlap– Harry takes the Underground to get to Diagon Alley for the first time and Platform 9 3/4 exists in a magical space that lives inside the real life King’s Cross. When there are the Azkaban escapes, the Ministry of Magic notifies the Muggle Prime Minister. And finally, while magical creatures like centaurs, house elves, giants and veela exist, humans are the dominant creatures. In LOTR, there is very little relation to the “real world”– the universe exists in Middle Earth in an alternate time frame and there are a number of different species populating the universe, only one of which are men. But, when you first pick up the LS series, look at the illustration, and begin reading, you start to think that these unfortunate children are British and live in London somewhere in some distant past. Certainly, the popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies certainly add to this tendency. After all, if the Baudelaire orphans are such precocious children– Violet with her inventing, Klaus with reading and nearly photographic memory, and Sunny with her superhuman biting ability and strength– and such horrible things happen to them as they are pursued by an evil Count, they must certainly be part of the British Empire in the same way poor orphaned Harry Potter is. Apparently, orphan services have historically had problems in Britain– Oliver Twist was British. In any case, this assumption about the setting of this series carries over into the film’s cinematography, set design, wardrobe, and casting, especially with Jude Law appearing (but always partially concealed much like Home Improvement’s Wilson) as the narrator, Lemony Snicket himself. But no real-life locations are actually ever mentioned– all the places in the stories have names like “Lake Lachrymose”– and most references to real historical events, like World War I, are made by the narrator in one of his many humoring digressions.

But I digress.

The point is that the Baudelaires could live anywhere at any time and as such, there are no guarantees about how the child services works, how inheritance works, how mandatory education works, etc. It’s not so much a suspension of disbelief that allows us to believe that the children would be forced to work in a sawmill, but the idea that since we don’t know where or when they are, we don’t know if child labor laws actually exist. I mean, they pay their workers with coupons and feed them chewing gum for lunch. We’re not dealing with normal people here, folks.

Many questions similar to mine are asked in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, but are not answered, except in a cryptic collection of diary entries and the like. And although each book’s storyline becomes a little formulaic and predictable– the second a new character is introduced, you set to work figuring out how they are related to Count Olaf– but the teasing is nevertheless well done and the mystery of VFD and the hope that there will be some relief for these children is a compelling one that keeps you reading through the series. Sometimes though, as I discovered when I went to reread the first three books, you just want to tell Mr. Poe to quit being such a cock up, Uncle Monty to quit worrying about his herpetology career, and Aunt Josephine to sack up and quit being such a pussy.