A Series of Unfortunate Events is a 13-book long series of children’s novels written by David Handler (the first 3 of which were adapted into a movie, released 2004) that follow the misadventures of three recently-orphaned children, the Baudelaires, as they try, book after book, to escape the clutches of their greedy distant relative, Count Olaf, who wants to get his hands on their fortune. This large, undisclosed sum is to be inherited by the eldest of the three siblings, Violet, when she turns 18. She is already a brilliant inventor, aged 14, who ties her hair up in a ribbon to keep it out of her face when working. The middle child, Klaus, age 12, is an avid reader, and before the fire that consumed both the Baudelaire house and the lives of the Baudelaire parents, would spend most of his time in the house’s extensive library. The youngest child, Sunny, who is of unknown age, but described as a young baby for the entirety of the series, speaks in short words or phrases, often seemingly nonsensical, and has the gift of a strong jaw and rather sharp teeth. Together this trio use their wits to escape Count Olaf, uncover the truth behind their parents’ deaths, and unravel the mysteries of a secret society to which their parents, Count Olaf, and many more shady acquaintances all belong. The entire series is written through the eyes of the fictional author, Lemony Snicket.
The first book in the series, The Bad Beginning, sees the orphans as they first become orphans; their house is destroyed in a fire, and, as they are told, both their parents perished inside. The executor of their parents’ will, Mr. Poe, determines that the best interpretation of the clause that the children should “be raised in the most convenient way possible” is that they should go to their closest living relative, who is a distant cousin by the name of Count Olaf. The Count, as we soon learn, is a wicked man who overworks the children as if they are mere servants and who is truly only interested in getting his hands on the fortune that Violet is to inherit. He writes a play in which he and Violet are to get married, and the children learn that it will be legally binding. It is after this point that Violet truly begins to shine as a feminist hero in the series, through actions that are completely erased in the movie adaptation. The interesting thing to note about the movie adaptation is that it splits the first book into two parts, and then places the next two books in between them. So while in the books, Count Olaf is their first guardian, then Monty Montgomery in The Reptile Room, and Josephine Antwhistle in The Wide Window, in the movie, Olaf only retains custody of the orphans for a very short period before being moved to Montgomery, then Josephine, and finally back to Olaf for the resolution of the first book, including all of the play mentioned earlier.
Before we delve into the disparities between the first book and the movie, we should first consider the construction of the three main characters and how they differ from traditional gender norms. Violet is an inventor, who would spend most days tinkering in some way, is described as being awful at cooking, and is seen later in the book chopping wood alongside her brother. While none of these traits are groundbreaking representations of female characters, they are welcome alternatives to the myriad of “traditional” representations of women in media as the weak, motherly figure. Sunny as well seems to exhibit inhuman strength, or at least that above the strength of the average baby, a trait again traditionally reserved for male figures. Both are additionally portrayed as brave, adventurous, and as rational thinkers, which are all characterized as “manly” traits in a study of gendered advertising.¹ Also from the same study are a description of traits that are considered “unmanly”, among them: the ability to feel and express a range of emotions, working cooperatively without the need for control, and solving conflicts without violence. It can be argued that Klaus exhibits all of these traits, as he is openly cries after being struck by Count Olaf, collaborates with his sister instead of vying for control against her, and never resorts to pure violence as a solution to problems, instead relying on his near encyclopedic memory. Again, though simply defying these stereotypes is not a comprehensive argument for the presence of feminism, the challenging of them does lay a good foundation for female empowerment through literature.
How, then, do we more clearly show the representation of Violet as a feminist icon and the series as a whole as one of female empowerment? We can contrast it with the movie adaptation mentioned earlier, that, while generally well-received by critics, when compared with the books, highlights a worrying difference between the representation of Violet and her accomplishments. Continuing the plot description from above, after discovering that the play Count Olaf has written will be legally binding, Olaf kidnaps Sunny and places her in a birdcage outside of a very tall tower, and threatens to kill her if Violet does not agree to go ahead with the play. Violet then constructs a grappling hook out of an old umbrella and rope in order to scale the tower with Klaus to reach Sunny. In the movie, this scene has been changed dramatically. Ostensibly, the reason Violet does not appear in this scene is because the play has already began when Klaus scales the tower. And while Klaus does indirectly credit the idea to Violet (through asking what she would do in this scenario, rather than simply constructing the hook himself), it begs the question: Why has this scene been moved back in the movie? It makes perfect sense within the context of the book, and its placing would not have even been disturbed by the division of the first book within the movie, as the play is not even mentioned before the children move in with Uncle Monty in the movie. As such, it seems that the only reason to move back the scene is to justify the removal of Violet and invalidate an inventive achievement that should rightfully be hers. Why did the producers of the film decide to place Klaus in this scene instead of Violet? The trade-off here seems to be more male representation in the film at the expense of all-important character exposition. A later scene from the same video clip exemplifies this even further. The climax of the book is the signature of the marriage certificate by Violet. Olaf then interrupts the play to announce to the other characters in the book what we already knew: that the certificate is legally binding and that Count Olaf and Violet are married. Or are they? Violet interjects, saying that she signed the marriage certificate with her non-dominant hand, rendering the entire contract null and void. With the fortune protected and Count Olaf foiled, he escapes and the Baudelaires are relocated for the next book, and for Olaf’s next scheme. The relative scene in the movie is nothing like the one just described. Instead of the denouement coming from the revelation that Violet has outwitted Count Olaf, all hopes of that are dashed as soon as she approaches the stand, and the credit for foiling Olaf’s plan is given to Klaus for burning the certificate with the same magnifying glass implied to have burned down the Baudelaire’s mansion (though this too is not present in the book). And so yet again we see the erasure of Violet’s accomplishments in favor of Klaus within the movie. Why, then, have the producers of the movie decided to give Violet the short end of the stick in the last few scenes of the movie? Maybe to better portray the point, a better question would be “Why did Handler decide to give these roles to Violet in the first place?” Obviously, the representation is appreciated, but what does this representation achieve that the movie fails to recognize, or maybe even deliberately avoids? In the books, Handler does an excellent job of depicting the Baudelaires as “masters of their own fates”, in a way. They obviously have no control over the settings in which they are placed, but their accomplishments within these settings are always uniquely their own, and it is through the combination of their actions that they continually outwit Count Olaf. By depicting Violet in the way that she was within the movie, all sense of her being in control of her fate is removed. Klaus acts entirely independently of Violet for the entire last section of the movie, while Violet fails to get the better of Count Olaf even once. She is not uniquely in control of her actions the same way she is in the books, and it is this representation within the books that lead to her characterization as a feminist lead. She is in control of her life and her destiny, and this representation is a model that other young women can base their actions off of. Violet is meant to empower young women so that they too can believe that they are capable of anything, even in the most dire of situations, and the lack of this empowerment in the movie is disheartening.