The Mysterious Benedict Society
Developed by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay
Disney +, 2021
***Note: The article discusses plot points which may be considered spoilers.***
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In 2019, Hulu announced that it would be adapting Trenton Lee Stewart’s 2007 novel The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little, Brown and Company) as a streaming series. In some ways, this makes perfect sense. The book has been extremely popular, spawning three sequels, a prequel, and a puzzle book. For many children, tweens, and teens, it strikes a chord with its portrayal of gifted children who become heroes after emerging from backgrounds where their gifts had earned them only rejection, scorn, or exploitation. But as with other similar adaptations, the question naturally arises: would the filmed version be faithful, in plot and theme, to the source material?
The journey from page to screen proved a circuitous one. Production was detoured, as filming occurred during the pandemic. The series was then moved from Hulu to Disney Plus, with the first two of its eight episodes airing on June 25, 2021. The season finale was released on August 6, allowing viewers to judge just how effectively the storyline had been transplanted from its original matrix to the streaming platform.
My own viewing of the show is conditioned not just by my role as a literary and cultural commentator but also by my role as a parent. I have read several of the books with my children (who have read them far more than I have), and it was with my children that I watched the episodes as they aired. While some reviews may examine filmed series as products distinct from their inspiration, I have no intention of doing that. The beautiful idiosyncrasy of the books is what drew me and my kids to them, so one of my overriding interests in the series will naturally be whether it can sustain the virtues of Stewart’s novels. Unfortunately, despite some incisive commentary on our modern infatuation with screen technology, the streaming series collapses into a sentimentalism that the books more effectively avoid.
The Benedict Saga
What exactly is it that makes The Mysterious Benedict Society so distinctive? It’s not necessarily the plot, though that is diverting enough, to be sure. The initial book starts with four children as they pass through a series of tests. These tests at first appear to be ordinary standardized Q&As, but the reader soon learns that these are just the beginning — more unusual ordeals are coming, and even the first set of questions was not as straightforward as it might appear. The children eventually emerge into the headquarters of the eponymous Nicholas Benedict, a reclusive but kindly genius who has recruited them to go on an undercover mission. They must infiltrate the Learned Institute for the Very Enlightened (LIVE), an island school that is the apparent source of the Emergency, a vaguely-defined sense of worldwide unease that is being transmitted through people’s media consumption. The four young members of the Mysterious Benedict Society pose as students to uncover and thwart the enigmatic forces at work.
This is all standard fare for YA fiction, precocious kids sent (adult-free) on a perilous mission to save the world. Superficially, the kids themselves are likewise a typical grab-bag of varying personalities. The protagonist is Reynie Muldoon, an intuitive orphan who shares Mr. Benedict’s love of puzzle-solving. He is matched with George “Sticky” Washington, a young genius who remembers every piece of information he is exposed to. They are joined by Kate Wetherall, an erstwhile acrobat who keeps a bucket of tools that she resourcefully employs to escape from any scrape. The fourth member is Constance Contraire, a tiny and obstreperous girl whose only gift seems at first to be her profound stubbornness and irritability.
The true distinctiveness of the books comes in the details. As the plot of each volume progresses, the characters (child and adult alike) become more than the sums of their eccentricities, growing and learning from one another. The prose style is competent if undistinguished, but Stewart keeps wordplay, puzzles, and conundrums flying, adding both levity and depth. The first book in particular takes its time to arrive at its destination: the characters are introduced and tested with meticulous description, and they bond with each other and Benedict’s adult team over several additional chapters. Even once they are on the island at the Institute, Stewart concedes his secrets gradually. Simply put, the book demands more patience and attention from its audience than most comparable contemporary young adult fiction.
And this pacing fits well with Stewart’s agenda. The Emergency is broadcast via screens. The books are set in a slightly modified version of our own world, one that has mostly the same geography and ecology (with a few additions) but with a retro feel that is evident both in the text and the illustrations. The internet was already a significant factor in 2007, yet the dominant media of the books remain TV and radio. Still, the dangers of overconsuming media resonate, not just in the presence of subliminal messages but in the ways they dominate our attention and distract us. In this regard, the slow-mounting suspense of the novel subtly trains its young readers to resist the allure of screen-based instant gratification.
Any fan of the books is thus faced with a conundrum when approaching their streaming incarnation: is it even possible faithfully to adapt novels in which the danger of screen technology is such a key theme? Interestingly, this is where the show is at its strongest. The set designers admirably translate the book’s colorful, old-fashioned aesthetic in visual space, pairing it with perfectly matched theme music. The ubiquity of newspapers and antique televisions that the kids must avoid adds to the emphasis on media distortion of truth.
One key change from the book to the series actually doubles down on this wariness of screen technology. In the novels, Mr. Benedict’s nemesis — the founder of L.I.V.E. and mastermind of the Emergency — is in fact his long-lost twin brother Ledroptha Curtain. The literary Mr. Curtain is a scheming misanthrope who (for reasons made clear later) drives around in a high-speed wheel chair and veils his eyes with dark glasses. The new version becomes Dr. L. D. Curtain, still Mr. Benedict’s twin, but quite mobile and clear-eyed. This Curtain projects compassion toward his employees and students, unlike his surly counterpart in the books. The departure is jarring but does serve a purpose that aligns somewhat with Stewart’s.
Dr. Curtain in the show is depicted as a contemporary tech mogul, slick and efficient and ergonomic. He praises change and progress, so long as it gives him control, and his every conversation sounds like the rehearsal for his next TED talk. Unlike the growling, grandstanding Mr. Curtain on the page, this smoother Curtain dishes out tautological shibboleths like, “Work the system. The system works…if you work it.” In other words, he’s a very different character — but one who reinforces the original work’s themes by calling attention to the shallowness of Silicon-Valley-style “innovation.”
All the Feels
Mr. Curtain is not the only character altered on screen for The Mysterious Benedict Society: Benedict himself becomes a substantially different individual, and it is here that the modifications become more troubling, with ripple effects that run through the series. Some differences are fairly superficial — the original appears older, with greyer hair and less facial hair, always sporting his trademark ugly plaid. But the changes run deeper than personal grooming and wardrobe.
The show retains a key feature of Stewart’s Benedict: his narcolepsy, brought on by intense emotion. Yet this condition plays nowhere near as large a role now, popping up only sporadically in the episodes, which is a significant departure. The effects of his narcolepsy foster a necessary temperance in the original Nicholas Benedict. He has to practice moderation and self-control; to do otherwise would imperil him. The series, on the other hand, mostly forgets this moderation. Its version of Benedict literally screams cathartically at one point. He constantly vacillates in his course of action and has to be soothed and talked down from his emotional outbursts by his more level-headed associates, Number Two and Rhonda Kazembe.
Simply put, as written for the screen and embodied by actor Tony Hale, screen Benedict just doesn’t come across as a man worth following. Both Benedicts are torn by the decision to send child operatives into a dangerous espionage situation, and both work hard to ensure that their young protégés know what is happening and volunteer willingly. But Hale’s Benedict gets very little time with the kids before sending them out, and he is frequently prey to his feelings of remorse: in the books, he never knew about his twin brother, while in the show, they have a complex personal history. At one point in the season finale, the ever-sarcastic Constance Contraire rescues her partner and proclaims, “I’m thinking ‘The Mysterious Constance Society’…with Kate.” This comment strikes a little too close to the bone: Benedict seems almost irrelevant in this show that is named for him.
Preparing the Mysterious Benedict Society for action requires instilling discipline and self-control in the four young members. Stewart suggests a distinctly monastic quality to the project: the mentor shares his name with the founder of a monastic rule, and the kids’ tests even occur in a place called the Monk Building. They are all lonely individuals who experience community together, giving up what little they have for their shared purpose (and the book is mercifully free of romantic entanglements). The book never indicates that emotions are bad, but it does frequently place its characters in situations where they must sublimate their desires for the good of the righteous task. Placed in Curtain’s device called the Whisperer, the boys are soothed almost to the point of complacency. Kate frequently must subdue her impulsive nature. Even Constance attempts to restrain her caustic insouciance — even her limited success is remarkable, given what Stewart reveals about her in the closing act.
Some of this degree of self-mastery remains in the series, but not nearly enough. The episodes are shot through with emotionally-oriented language. Far from being mature adults managing crisis situations, the four grown-ups are frequently subject to bickering and bouts of strongly expressed feelings, and Benedict himself is the worst offender. The vocabulary of the show shifts to accommodate this emphasis: Benedict praises the kids for their empathy (a word that never appears in the book), and the finale hammers home ad nauseam the importance of “being seen.” The heroes are made more morally ambiguous, and the villains are portrayed more sympathetically.
Taken individually, none of these changes is intrinsically problematic. Rightly employed, empathy can produce positive effects; it is important to “see” people as possessing inherent value; real human beings do exist in moral spectrums rather than stark good versus evil dichotomies. Collectively, however, the final product oozes into a sentimentality that is literally tedious — the finale spends so much time focused on feelings that it omits or circumvents its action sequences, and we are left with long silences and characters standing around emoting.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, the philosopher Aristotle argued that virtue lay in the mean between two extremes, and temperance itself was one of his virtues. Aristotle’s understanding of virtue ethics was adopted by Christian philosophers and theologians, who added the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love). Stewart never directly mentions “virtue” in this sense, yet Mr. Benedict is clearly inculcating virtues in his team. In Saint Benedict’s day (early sixth century), these virtues helped his monastic communities stand apart from a world that was losing its moral compass and degenerating into self-indulgence.
Stewart’s book doesn’t hit its readers over the head with virtue. He places his characters in morally complex situations. The Society’s very mission requires deception, and the protagonists wrestle with questions about truth and falsehood throughout the narrative. First, the children must discern whether Benedict himself is an adult worthy of their trust, especially once his own mission for them comes into conflict with the contradictory messaging from Curtain’s men. They must also be prepared to sacrifice comfort and safety, for the mission and for one another. To its credit, the TV series retains many of these components. Christian parents who want to engage in rich discussion with their kids on challenging moral issues will find food for thought in both the novels and their adaptation.
Still, I’m glad my kids read the books before watching the show. Children (and probably adults too) will tend to gravitate toward the first telling of a story they encounter, whether that is the original work or its film version(s). It might be difficult to attract young readers to the texts once they’ve watched them dramatized. But though the books are perhaps slower and less flashy than their streaming counterpart, they are also meatier on key philosophical and theological levels.
Disney Plus’s Mysterious Benedict Society does recognize the ways in which our contemporary marriage to technology can compromise our pursuit of truth and goodness. But unlike its source material, it cannot seem to find the discipline to resist those root desires. Too often, its characters (especially its adult heroes) are shaped by their emotions, rather than ordering their desires around right pursuits. Engaging as the show is in its best moments, it lacks the countercultural force of its predecessor.—Geoffrey Reiter
Geoffrey Reiter is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Literature at Lancaster Bible College and an Associate Editor at Christ and Pop Culture. He holds a PhD in English from Baylor University and an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His published academic and creative writing focuses on the intersection of faith, philosophy, and science in speculative fiction.