In 2019, Hulu announced that it would be adapting Trenton Lee Stewart’s 2007 novel The Mysterious Benedict Society 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?
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 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.
Any fan of the books is thus faced with 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. But the final product for the small screen oozes into a sentimentality that is literally tedious.
DisneyPlus’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.
This Postmodern Realities episode is a conversation with Journal author Geoffrey Reiter about about his online-exclusive, “Does The Mysterious Benedict Society have the Right Stuff? ”. ***Note: The article and podcast discuss plot points which may be considered spoilers.***
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