**Starting on June 25, Disney Plus began airing the first season of The Mysterious Benedict Society, based on Trenton Lee Stewart’s book series. For the next seven weeks, this column will recap and analyze each episode. This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society (and the corresponding novel).**
I don’t read massive quantities of YA literature, but I have always had a healthy respect for the genre both as entertainment and (at its best) as genuine literature. One of my kids’ favorite series has been for several years Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society books. The inaugural entry, The Mysterious Benedict Society, was first published in 2007, eventually followed by three sequels, a prequel, and a companion puzzle book.
I’m optimistic that the heart of the books can remain intact, even if some executive choices may blunt its effectiveness.Many fans of the books have doubtless been waiting since their inception for an adaptation of some kind. In 2019, a series order was first announced, to be developed by writers Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay. After a convoluted production process, the show finally landed at Disney Plus, the first two episodes of its inaugural season (based on book one) dropping on June 25.
As with any screen adaptation of a beloved written text, aficionados of Stewart’s works are sure to approach the new streaming series with a mix of excitement and trepidation. But the trepidation may be even more significant for this particular series, given its unique appeal. At its heart, the books are fairly straightforward YA fare. Four gifted, misunderstood children get the opportunity to join a secret society founded by the quirky, enigmatic genius Nicholas Benedict, who is combating a strange, vaguely defined media-driven phenomenon known only as the Emergency. The children must infiltrate a school apparently for gifted children, one that appears to be the source of Emergency propaganda.
Some aspects of the books are readily adaptable. The quirky characters are well-defined both in description and in personality, and Stewart’s level of detail is often meticulous. In these regards, the books seem ideally suited for the type of limited series that streaming platforms love so much these days.
In other ways, however, the books present unique challenges. One challenge is that same meticulousness on Stewart’s part. The novels are all fairly long, but also gradual. The pacing requires patience. Characters learn what is happening through processes of step-by-step ratiocination, and they often speak in sizable chunks of text. One of the delightfully distinctive qualities of the novels is how they have succeeded in becoming popularity despite making some demands on their young readers. In this way, their format seems ill-suited to the medium of contemporary television, which often relies on quick cuts and one-liners.
Which leads to another potential hazard. The Emergency itself is disseminated through frequent media use. Obsession with screens, and the concomitant mixture of shortened attention span with mind-numbing passive stimulation, is precisely danger in the original Mysterious Benedict Society. By this standard, one could argue that Disney Plus itself is potentially part of the very problem Stewart’s novels are critiquing. A key question going forward, then, will be whether the streaming series can transcend its medium to make the same points as its source material, or whether it will be beaten into submission by its televised format.
The result after the first two episodes is a mixed bag, not unlike its protagonists: imperfect but promising. The first episode, “A Bunch of Smart Orphans,” quickly introduces the junior members of the team: compassionate, intuitive Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Inscho); “Sticky” Washington (Seth Carr), whose mind recalls everything he reads; athletic and inventive Kate Weatherall (Emily DeOliveira); and the youngest member, grumpy and forthright Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler). The four (or at least the first three) use their distinctive skill-sets to pass a series of tests, tests which unwittingly bring them into the orbit of Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale). By episode two, “Carrying a Bird,” the four have made it to the belly of the beast, L.I.V.E. (which in the show stands for The Learned Institute for Veritas and Enlightenment), an apparently elite academy, but also the source of the media broadcasts that have spurred the Emergency.
This arc follows pretty closely to the books, though some details are different. Many are noticeable but primarily cosmetic: TV sticky isn’t bald, nor is Kate’s hair in her signature ponytail, while Tony Hale bears only a vague physical resemblance to the book’s vivid descriptions (and illustrations). The tests themselves are fairly similar to the novel’s, though “A Bunch of Smart Orphans” adds a couple extra children who advance somewhat farther in them; this, however, serves primarily to emphasize the virtues of the protagonists.
But more importantly, how well thus far do the episodes keep to the themes of Stewart’s books? This is a significant question for me, as my own interest in the books is tied closely to those themes. From a critical perspective, I might be able to ask whether or not the show succeeds or fails as art on its own merits; but, to be frank, I’d rather see it fail than succeed artistically in a way that undermined the message of its source material.
Stewart’s themes are inextricably tied to the nature of his child heroes. Benedict selects them not just because they are precocious children with quirky talents. He selects them for aspects of their character, aspects that his various tests factor in. Each of the three older children, for instance, is offered the opportunity first to help someone in need, only to have the same person offer to help them cheat. That person, we learn, in one of Mr. Benedict’s associates, Rhonda Kazembe (MaameYaa Boafo). Assisting Rhonda demonstrates their care for others, while rejecting her offer demonstrates their strength of character in the face of temptation. (I will hold off on commentary about Constance’s unique place in the tests and the group, as it becomes revealed later in the series.)
These aspects are well done in episode one, and Mr. Benedict’s explanation for the children’s success in the episode tracks fairly closely with the book’s. It includes his commendation of the kids for their love of truth, even when falsehoods are easier to believe, and this is a theme that has grown in pertinence since Stewart first wrote about it almost fifteen years ago—though I hope the show can resist the urge to over-politicize it.
TV Mr. Benedict’s commendation includes direct praise for a quality that the book does not mention overtly: empathy. This is hardly surprising, as empathy is a current buzzword, much more so than in 2007. It’s not wholly out of place, though. Implicitly, the member of the Society do show empathy, first in the test from Rhonda and eventually in their own care for one another. I am simply wary of that aspect overwhelming the show’s other themes. In “A Bunch of Smart Orphans,” the comment about empathy comes up close on the heels of the discussion about truth. Empathy can lead to truth, if putting ourselves in other people’s positions helps us see a truth that is more readily visible from their perspective. But at its worst, empathy can threaten to subjectivize discussions about truth; it can cause us to identify so strongly with someone that we may take on a distorted position.
I’m not saying The Mysterious Benedict Society streaming show is going to do that. A key antidote will be how well it tracks with another quality that Stewart never states but that runs throughout the books: virtue. It is that strength of character under trial that also defines the four children. The classical world identified four virtues—justice, courage, wisdom, and temperance—and one could make the case that the Society members display them all. Moreover, as Aristotle noted in his Nicomachean Ethics, the right path of virtue tends to be the mean—that is a balance between two extremes. The show at times seems to nod to this reality. Mr. Benedict’s second in command, Number Two (Kristen Schaal), identifies him as “one of the preeminent ethicists, moralists, and scientists of our time.” The series keeps Mr. Benedict’s form of narcolepsy, which renders him incapacitated when he experiences strong emotion—that is, Mr. Benedict must remain balanced and moderate in order to be effective.
The ability to practice balance and moderation is inhibited by our media consumption, something that was already quite evident to Trenton Lee Stewart in the mid-2000s. Here, I am conflicted: the series adopts a retro aesthetic, with old-fashioned cars, TV screens, newspapers, and nary a smartphone in sight. This makes it fun to watch, but I hope it doesn’t keep viewers from recognizing just how relevant its critiques are to our own world, which is far more screen-saturated. The fact that L.I.V.E. is being depicted like some strange Silicon Valley academy is a promising touch. On the other hand, at times the episodes seem like they can’t resist the urge to throw in one-liners or clipped dialogue in spots that are far more developed. This may be necessary for its medium—some viewers and critics have complained that the series is slow-moving as it is—but then, once again, we are back to the crux of the issue. Can a book that skewers screen-based media culture be fully realized on just such a screen?
I’m optimistic that the heart of the books can remain intact, even if some executive choices may blunt its effectiveness. There likely can be no substitute for the novels, intrinsically based on the very fact that they are novels. But right now, on the whole, The Mysterious Benedict Society seems to have its heart in the right place.