A miserable idea
'Lemony Snicket' finds unexpected success writing dreadful stories for kids
Why are people so strangely drawn to others' misfortunes? Like car wrecks? Or reality shows? Or the hapless misadventures of the Baudelaire children in the Lemony Snicket tales, A Series of Unfortunate Events? Regardless of the reason, it certainly seems to be a steadfast phenomenon. In the best-selling series of novels for young readers by slightly elusive author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, three orphaned children are dealt unlucky twists of fate. Just as they seem to overcome one insurmountable obstacle, they encounter yet another unfortunate turn. To be fair, the reader is forewarned about the outcome before any adventures begin. In the opening line of The Bad Beginning: Book the First, the author warns, If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. And he is true to his word.
The author himself finds it fascinating that his fan base is so vast. "It turns out there is quite an audience of people who enjoy reading about bad things happening to children," says Handler. "It was the sort of thing I would have loved to read when I was eight or nine, but certainly not something I thought adults would actually let children read." In fact, Handler originally presented the idea for A Series of Unfortunate Events to his editor as "proof that it would be a miserable idea [for him] to write for children." Handler's first novel, The Basic Eight, had been set in a high school, and his editor thought it would be a great idea if Handler wrote for young people, instead of about them. Handler initially said no, but came up with the Snicket series as a kind of joke. "We met in a bar to discuss it," recalls Handler, "because I didn't want either of us wasting our time." In the end, however, the editor loved Handler's twisted idea and the Lemony Snicket series was born.
From the very first chapter of The Bad Beginning (the first book) to the last lines of The Grim Grotto (the latest title, which goes on sale Sept. 21), the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny face grief, misery and disaster. The series begins with the children enjoying a day out of the city at a nearby beach, only to be jolted with the news that their family mansion has burned down and their parents have been killed in the fire. The orphans are left an immense fortune, but no legal guardian to care for them. Soon, they are shipped off to live with a money-hungry relative, Count Olaf, who will do whatever he can to get his hands on the Baudelaire bucks including murder, if need be. In the latest installment, The Grim Grotto, the Baudelaires take a wild undersea ride with Captain Widdershins at the helm of a submarine. They must battle poisonous mushrooms, a huge, deadly octopus and a sinister hook-handed man in their effort to outsmart Count Olaf.
The grimness of the storyline hasn't deterred many. Handler's tales have an almost cult following and with every book published the fan base seems to grow. A San Francisco native, Handler initially released the first book to independent bookstores in the area, which immediately started to buzz. Still, Handler was convinced that the books would be failures. "I couldn't believe it when we sold 5,000 copies," he admits. That the books have now sold more than 18 million copies and dominate the New York Times children's book bestseller list is "mind-boggling," he says.
Although Handler had originally signed on to do four books, he was sure he wouldn't make it that far. "I thought that by the second book my agent and editor would tell me, thanks, but we've had enough." Not so. With The Grim Grotto coming out this fall, and two more books (a total of 13) due out by 2006, Handler's appeal seems to be even stronger.
What's more, a movie compilation, Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, is set to open in theaters on Dec. 17. "When a film company looked at advance copies before the books were published," Handler admits, "I thought they were crazy. But as the books sold more and more copies, the interest in the film rights became more and more fervent and it became clear that the moviemakers might not have been so crazy after all."
The film, produced by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks, features Jim Carrey as the menacing Count Olaf, Meryl Streep as the articulate Aunt Josephine and Jude Law as Lemony Snicket, the narrator who also becomes a character. As author, he was planning to write the screenplay, but after months of effort, he passed the torch on to veteran screenwriter Robert Gordon (Men in Black II).
"I was exhausted, and I realized that I wanted to write books, not screenplays," says Handler. Add to that a producer who quit, a director who got fired and a series of budget disputes, and Handler was convinced, "it was a good time for me to duck out." Taking more of a backseat approach to the film has not bothered the author in the least. "I don't feel like I own the characters," says Handler, "and I don't think, 'How dare you make up your own version of the story.' What I do believe is that any story that goes out into the world belongs to everyone and they can perceive the characters however they please."
One would expect Handler to be pretty pleased with his success and newfound fame, but the well-grounded author seems unfazed. "The goal has always been for me to write for a living," he says, "and that's what I'm doing." That he now gets stopped on the streets of his San Francisco neighborhood is just another peculiar twist to his already slightly strange view of the world. "I'm never quite sure if someone recognizes me from my work or because I grew up here. As soon as I start to think that person is an actual fan, I realize I went to high school with him."