With the release of the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s seminal 13-novel series, I wished to return to the 2004 film that brought the Baudelaire misfortunes to the silver screen. Instead of discussing the film itself, where it shines and where it doesn’t, I want to focus on one of the best artistic components: the music. As of writing this, I haven’t yet seen the new series, to refrain from comparing it with the subject at hand.
Thomas Newman is no backwoods composer, and I feel that his work here should be recognized. Yes, the film let fans down in several ways, but this soundtrack did not. It carries the spirit of the Snicket legacy, immerses the listener fully within that world, and can stand alone as the storyteller for this dark tale.
Despite Jim Carrey’s antics in the film, the music carries the appropriate weight of tragedy and menace that Count Olaf is meant to embody. The Baudelaire children are a light that shines through that menace, but it’s often very hard to see that light. Their altercations are what sends this soundtrack full steam ahead into the tragedies, triumphs, grief and hope, each inevitable. In my opinion, Thomas Newman was the perfect choice to orchestrate this sonic narration.
When it comes to soundtrack design, I find there are often two components. There’s atmosphere (or environment): the concept work, background, or context. Secondly, there’s narration: subject, action, and interaction. An effective soundtrack, stripped of the film’s context, ought to have both of these in balance. A composition of nothing but minimal background textures doesn’t cut it. All context, no focus. Likewise, narration without context becomes tiresome and an earsore. Take, for example, an action movie that doesn’t let up, is always running and smashing. It may appeal when paired with visuals but has no place on its own.
Newman knows how to marry these two components beautifully, and he’s done it time and again. Here, the context takes several forms. Olaf’s windchimes dotting the dead, desolate woods surrounding his decrepit house. Ferry bells clanging just off the dock of lachrymose lake. The wealth of knowledge and wild-natured excitement that could be found within the reptile room.
The narration fits in perfectly with the atmospheres, and here are a few examples.
- An Unpleasant Incident Involving a Train - The children are trapped in a car parked on railroad tracks. You can hear a locomotive still far off, but you feel it through the shaking tracks as it barrels closer. Frenetic violins play, railroad bells clang, and tense guitar strings are plucked.
- The overtly ridiculous presentation of “The Marvelous Marriage”, a play performed by buffoons, belies the sillier aspects of the film, but is still very enjoyable to hear. The usual suspects, accordion and tuba, dance around and poke fun at the stage.
- And “The Letter That Never Came” features a Thomas Newman favorite, a moving piano melody with melancholic violins flowing in and out. This is the parents’ only manifestation through music, and all that the children have left of them. It communicates well their hopes and source of comfort: their memories of a happier life, and hope of a better one to come.
In conclusion, the music does Lemony Snicket more justice than the film did. It’s responsible for the environment and atmosphere I came to love when viewing it, and I’m glad that Thomas Newman left his mark on Snicket’s body of work.