Small children are sadists. There is a certain unvarnished delight for them in reading stories in which bad things happen to other children. When we wrote our holiday stories in elementary school, mine were quite popular tales in which most of my classmates met rather gruesome fates at school events corresponding to the holiday. Halloween was where my stories really shined.
The grisly kind of stories I wrote would, these days, get a kid put straight into counseling and most likely suspended for some time. Yet the most prominent practitioners of children's books in our day, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, and Philip Ardagh, tell stories in which terrible things befall the main characters. Like all good Disney films, there is a precedent here, involving most prominently the death (or severe illness) of the parents and the adoption by cruel guardians.
Lemony Snicket has written an entire series of popular books based on this premise entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events. The story of the first book, A Bad Beginning, follows the terrible things that befall the three Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, after they are orphaned by their parents' death in a fire which also destroys their home. They are adopted by a distant relative, the evil Count Olaf, who has designs on their inheritance. Through various intrigues, he goes about trying to move himself into power over their money, climaxing in his forced marriage to Violet Baudelaire.
Unlike Rowling's Harry Potter series, there are no bright and shining moments to spice up the tales. There are moments where you believe perhaps that the darkness will be leavened by an escape or a triumph by the children, but you'd be a fool to believe in that fairy tale for long. Snicket promises at the book's beginning that the story won't end happily and it's a promise he makes good on, even if the children manage to make it through the story alive.
When something can go bad or wrongly, it does. When the children are left with Count Olaf, instead of toys, he gives them rocks to play with. When their next door neighbor, a judge, is tricked into Count Olaf's scheme to marry Violet for her inheritance, the judge's dreams of being on the stage blinds her to Olaf's machinations. When cataloging the bad things that happen to them, Violet thinks:
Their parents had died suddenly and horribly. Mrs. Poe had bought them ugly
clothing. They had moved into Count Olaf's house and were treated terribly.
The second one may seem relatively minor when compared to what brackets it, but for prepubescent children and early teens, it is indeed a horrible event. Cranky commentators on the state of children's literature, like snooty Harold Bloom, bemoan the fall of standards since Lewis Carroll. (One can simply bet that had Bloom been alive and a critic when the Alice books were published, he would have bemoaned the book as gibberish and such a far cry from Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare for children.) But Snicket manages to put real children's concerns on par with horrific nightmarish tragedies, the way a child might. (Rowling does the same thing by making Harry and his friends worry equally about Lord Voldemort and quidditch.)
The book seems to mix the fantastical and the rather normal in a pleasant way. Count Olaf has an associate with hooks for hands. The children's legal representative, Mr. Poe, dismisses their complaints against Count Olaf as the normal gripes of children. The bizarre and the commonplace cheek to jowl.
A Bad Beginning has a curious disconnected quality from any time or place. The odd and the regular are neighbors in time and space as well in Snicket's world. The quality of the characters and the buildings and the situations are very Dickensian, yet Violet longs for a computer. Count Olaf and his troupe of actors are grotesques from an ancient fairy tale, yet he uses a walkie-talkie in his scheming. The actual location remains vaguely defined, though it is in a country that is or was a monarchy, quite possibly England.
As a grown-up bookworm, I'm glad to see that Klaus, the bookworm boy, learns the secret of Count Olaf's schemes and almost saves the Baudelaire children. It is one of the nicest things in the first Harry Potter book that intelligence and analytical skill is necessary to save the day, rather than just magical ability and power. A Bad Beginning here likewise demonstrates the power of learning to change your situation. It is likewise nice to see Klaus ruin the surprise of his foiling in a know-it-all fashion by exposing his knowledge to Count Olaf. Snicket teaches two lessons here: the value of knowledge, and the value of not showing it off. Violet knows the second lesson well, and it is her analysis of Klaus' learning that provides the children with their loophole escape.
The book is short, barely making it to disc three, whose twenty or so minutes is padded out to a full hour with a curious scripted interview that was so badly done that I desperately longed to stop it midway through. It was very unnecessary and filled with bad jokes that were so strangely told there was no opening to laugh. This is followed by the novelty song "Scream and Run Away," about Count Olaf, about which the less said the better.
Tim Curry's reading is quite enjoyable, his voice a pleasant tenor but without much characterization of most voices. Klaus Baudelaire doesn't sound so terribly different from Justice Strauss. His coughing fits as the character of Mr. Poe are nice and phlegmy and sound very real. The voice of Count Olaf is very slithery and Curry makes him stand out among the other characters.
I must confess to having read the book in print prior to listening to it, but did so at least two years ago. The ending of the book is less plausible when you see it coming, but for that flaw (which Snickett tries to gloss over humorously, which probably works for children) the book is a fun and light read. It may not have the intellectual heft of Carroll's playfulness and it may never be included among the greats of children's literature, but for a beginning, it's not bad at all.