Does morbid drama have a place in art following the 2016 election? The author of A Series of Unfortunate Events talks about real-life politics that do and do not influence his work.
By Carson Leigh Brown
In the new adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Neil Patrick Harris plays the nefarious Count Olaf. (Photo: Netflix)
Is there space for wretchedly depressing entertainment in 2017? The new television adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, premiering today on Netflix, certainly makes the case. Derived from Lemony Snicket’s morbid books from the late ’90s and mid-’00s, the show isn’t much happier than its despondent source material:It’s“a self-consciously droll gothic dramedy that might be what would happen if Wes Anderson and Tim Burton decided to make a television series about children together,” as Variety’s Sonia Saraiya described it. This, after critics championed optimistic, escapist movies like La La Land and criticized movies like Bad Santa 2and Miss Sloane for cynicism and dark humor last year, after a political election filled with crude language and foul jokes.
And yet, in his books, Snicket writes about darkness in life to reckon squarely with the macabre, not to further victimize the vulnerable. The series features a trio of siblings who, through cunning artistry and seemingly boundless resourcefulness, escape the clutches of the fortune-hunting Count Olaf. Over the course of Snicket’s 13 books in the series, readers follow the Baudelaire family through disaster after disaster, meeting an endless stream of inept but well-meaning adults along the way.
The morbid whimsy of Snicket’s books has attracted millions of readers the world over. For some (including this writer) who grew up on these books, the series felt like the first time an adult, or a piece of media, was being truly straightforward about the abject tragedy of life — sometimes, the series acknowledged, things are just terrible.
In the wake of the 2016 election, we talked to Daniel Handler (the man behind the nom de plume Lemony Snicket) about the new Netflix adaptation, his adult book coming out later this year, and how political resistance can manifest in art.
Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to as the new show premieres on Netflix?
Hearing an audience of complete strangers react to it, because I have only watched the show with people who have worked on it and with people who I know personally who are going to be nice to me because they’re watching it on a laptop, while sipping cocktails. It’ll be nice to hear from total strangers who can moan their disapproval if they so desire.
And my wife has a spiffy outfit that I always like to see her in, so I’m looking forward to that too. She bought this dress not so long ago in Perth, Australia, that’s quite smashing.
How do you think that this art will continue to resonate in the age of Donald Trump, now that many of those readers have gotten older?
Daniel Handler speaks onstage at the 18th Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. (Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for LA Times)
Well, his age has just begun, so it’s hard to know what the hallmarks of the age of Trump will be. Certainly I think wickedness and treachery have been with us throughout all of history. So, I don’t picture the wickedness and treachery associated with A Series of Unfortunate Events to be particularly reminiscent of our president elect.
We stayed very true to the story of the books, but we also added many things, and that seems like a nice balance for an adaptation, when you kind of want something more to happen, but you kind of want exactly what you expect. I don’t think there will be very much that anyone will see as a betrayal of the books, but there are other things that we’ve added.
How do your own sociopolitical views interact with the art you make, if at all?
I think they would have to: I don’t know how you could hold strong political convictions and then decide that they will have nothing to do with your art — that would be a little depressing. I think believing that literature and the dream literature offers will prevail over the insipid wickedness of the world is a political belief that I have, and that’s one of the main themes of the Snicket books for sure. Thinking about the Baudelaires as being disenfranchised people from the society in which they are [enmeshed], that they’re being cast away and mocked and preyed upon at every turn, I think that speaks to any segment of society that feels that way in the cultural context in which they find themselves.
What motivated you to write the “13 Observations on Occupy Wall Street” back in 2011?
There was an organization that contacted me and said, “Would you like to write something about Occupy Wall Street?” And I thought, “Well, I don’t really know that much about Occupy Wall Street or what I would write.” Then I went to swim some laps at a pool and we all had to share lanes, which nobody likes to do, but everybody has to do. One man decided that he shouldn’t have to share the lanes because he had donated a lot of money to the building that housed the pool and I thought: “Oh! I could say something about this,” about entitlement and arrogance. I wrote it mostly right after I got out of the pool, waiting at a bus stop.
So the moral is go swimming.
Back in 2015, the press widelycovered that you donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood. You also have this new book coming out later this year, All the Dirty Parts, about teenage sexuality. How did you go about this new work in light of all the risks that organizations like Planned Parenthood are facing?
My wife and I have been donating to Planned Parenthood for a very long time, so it was not new to us to support the organization, but it was new to us to support at such a high profile and very publicly. It came at a time when Planned Parenthood was facing so much violence and treachery that it seemed really important to stand up and say that we supported it. Normally, my wife and I are not really interested in having our names on a building or the other trappings of philanthropy, but it seemed time to say, “This is a wonderful organization and are proud to support it.” We didn’t want to look like we were shamed into supporting it or something.
I think that sexual politics are endlessly fascinating. All the Dirty Parts is a lot about trying to figure out what it means to have a body and desire other bodies and to figure out the sexual landscape when you’re young and sexual culture is so explicit and so inescapable.
In one of the interviews you gave about that book, a challenge that you mentioned was “balancing a feminist consciousness with a desire to write honestly about sexuality in young men.” How did that play out?
Well, I’m a feminist because I think feminism speaks truth. Part of writing a realistic novel about a contentious issue is to try to speak truthfully about it. A temptation if you’re a feminist and you’re writing about sexuality in young men in fiction is to make it utopian because you think to yourself, “Young people are reading this, and I ought to be modeling responsible and sensitive sexual behavior so that feminist concerns can be put forward.” But sometimes you want to write a novel in which feminist concerns can be put forward by facing what it is that’s going on and how people are behaving and figuring out where those boundaries are. So I’d write a scene and I’d think, “Oh, my central character is really not behaving in a way in which I support,” and then I would think, “Well, that’s kind of the point.” So that was tricky.
A still from Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Photo: Netflix)
What do you enjoy about writing this sort of morbid whimsy, and what do you think allows it to endure?
I’ll answer that last part first because that’s very easy for me to answer because I have no idea. I’ve always been completely surprised that there was any kind of sizable audience for these books. The fact that it has continued is a source of constant bewilderment to me. I used to be very honest about saying that and finally someone said to me, “You can’t keep saying that because it sounds disingenuous, so you have to just come up with a reason and just say it.” And so I would say the reason that I thought the books were doing well, and then I read an interview with a so-called journalist at Fox News and he had basically the same explanation for why he was doing really well, so I decided that I would never use that explanation again because obviously it was wrong. And I knew it was wrong when I was saying it: So I have no idea why people are interested in these books.
And I guess why I like, what did you call it, “morbid whimsy”? That’s nice. I think I was just raised on that sensibility. Some of it was growing up Jewish, where the line between laughter and horror is almost constantly straddled, and some individual personality. And I just always thought it was delicious when terrible things happened in literature. I would have trouble composing a story in which there wasn’t at least the threat of something terrible happening. It’s pretty hardwired into my imagination I think.
Right, because didn’t you originally think that these would be too morbid to be a children’s series?
Well, absolutely. It’s not that I thought they would be too morbid for children to read, I just thought the gatekeepers of children’s literature would not let them in. At least in America, children’s literature is still under the surveillance of very conservative people. I don’t necessarily mean politically conservative, but conservative about what they think children ought to be reading.
I thought there’s no way this can get in, and there was some resistance, but there were some booksellers and early readers who were really enthusiastic and it kind of went from there. But for instance, All the Dirty Parts is being published for adults and part of that decision was thinking about the alarmist tendencies many people have when they think about young people reading about sex. Because obviously they should be reading about wars and a dystopian society where everyone is being slaughtered, instead of reading about making out.
It feels like the current timeline we’re living in is happening in one of your books, where life is a series of unfortunate events. Have you or any of your peers found the new Trump administration to be inspiring any new work?
I’d say among my peers, inspired is the opposite of how most of us are feeling as the Trump administration begins to take hold. I’m very resistant to any thought that the best art comes from great conflict, because I don’t think that’s true. I think there is resistance to be done, and I think certainly great work will be produced, as it is produced every year and every season by different people. I’m against that kind of causation. What I worry about with treachery and wickedness in this country is bonafide suffering and I don’t think any of that suffering is worthwhile if it helps someone to inspire some great piece of art.
I mean I think it’s great that people make art and I think art is necessary and people should continue to make it, I just hate it when people say, “Oh there’s going to be so much great protest art,” as if it’s a silver lining.
Do you have a theory on where the best art comes from?
Well I think I’m closer to Virginia Woolf’s school of thought that art comes from people who have enough space and time to breathe and consider. When I think about people who are under threat in this country, I think that you can almost trace the relative representation in art to people who have the most time and comfort to make that space. So politically we ought to dedicate ourselves to having a wider variety of people have that time and space and we’ll see more of that art.