‘You possess a quality which is severely lacking in our society,” Mr. Benedict said to the four children. From our seat on the basement couch, my siblings and I all leaned toward the TV, anticipating his next word. We knew what that quality would be: Truth! The deep desire for truth! Anyone who’d read the books knew this simple fact. But to our dismay, Mr. Benedict said no such thing.
Trenton Lee Stewart’s New York Times bestseller, The Mysterious Benedict Society, took the literary world by storm in 2007, prompting a prequel and three sequels — though none as endearing as the original — over the next twelve years. Centered on four quick, clever children and their extraordinary mentor, the first book is an adventure full of peril, friendship, riddles, codes, and courage.
Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance are each alone in the world, though they’re not all orphans. After passing a series of tests, they have been recruited by Mr. Benedict to join his team to uncover a dastardly plot by an evil villain trying to take over the world. Each child has incredible abilities, and when combined into a team, they are truly remarkable. Furthermore, they all become fast friends, determined to carefully work out difficulties both personal and external together.
Disney has taken an exceptional story about exceptional children and turned it into a mediocre TV show about emotionally wounded adults. Instead of the calm, trustworthy Mr. Benedict of the book, our young heroes are given an overly passionate mentor (played by Tony Hale) who lies to them right off the bat. Hale himself, in an interview with Variety, revealed his misunderstanding of Mr. Benedict’s character when he called him “a little erratic and befuddled.” Hale also plays (spoiler!) Mr. Benedict’s twin brother, Ledroptha Curtain, and the actor further displayed his inability to grasp character nuances when he said that Curtain has “got a tremendous amount of pain and trauma — he’s also very misunderstood.” Our world is obsessed with giving villains backstories, complete with lives gone wrong, to make excuses for them by calling them “misunderstood.” Hale’s buying into this excuse comes across in his unpersuasive portrayal of Curtain on screen.
The children themselves are unconvincingly acted, though Reynie (played by Mystic Inscho) is closer to the mark than the rest. Constance? Well, Marta Kessler is adorable, but frankly, she’s too old for the role, immediately derailing a major plot point. And poor Sticky. The real (book) Sticky is insecure and fidgety, constantly spouting knowledge, and fearful of everything, but he has a wonderful growth of character and courage. Screen Sticky, played by Seth Carr, is saddled with a predictable “I don’t want to betray my friends, but it’s for the best” role and has been stripped of all opportunities for growth. It is Kate’s character (played by Emmy DeOliveira), though, who disappoints the most. A cheerful, funny, intensely agile character in the book, on-screen Kate is harsh, dry, and often caustic. She isn’t a team player and constantly wants to (and does) go off spying on her own. This sets the tone for interactions among the rest of the group, and they never seem to cohere into an actual team.
Cinematographically, the show is captivating. The set, clothing styles, and soundtrack are all calculated to convey the timeless feel of the book as well as to play into its quirky nature, and it mostly works. The colors and designs are eye-catching, and the costumes are well tailored, but it’s the set of the Institute (where our protagonists go to figure out the evil plot) that plays the biggest role and remains the most unconvincing. It is supposed to be a place of contradictory rules, but the kids never seem to wonder at their surroundings. The little exploring they do only makes the show more convoluted.
How much should one be a book purist? Fair cases can be made for why we should just enjoy a movie or show (based on a book or series) as the medium it is and not get tied up in knots over differences. I personally enjoy certain movie adaptations of books, my top examples being the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, the Megan Follows Anne of Green Gables, and the BBC version of North and South. None is perfect, but each has managed to capture the essence of the tale and convey that to the audience. Here, alas, we don’t see a fair treatment of The Mysterious Benedict Society’s core story. Key elements of the book, such as Mr. Benedict’s narcolepsy and Number Two’s odd eating habits, are tossed in rarely and only for laughs. Mr. Curtain’s all-consuming desire for control is weakened in the show by his reliance on others to help run his evil, world-conquering machine. Apparently, Disney’s writers felt that the book’s plot twists were too clever and that their audience needed something more predictable. This is lazy, unimaginative writing that, in seeking to distinguish itself, ends up spitting out clichés and sappy, emotion-driven lines.
Yes, emotion-driven. For it wasn’t “truth” that all the children have in common. No, it is “empathy,” says TV Mr. Benedict.
Certainly, the children are considerate and kind (well, not Constance, exactly), but they were brought together for a much more important reason than just being empathetic. Leave it to Disney to turn a story about teamwork, courage, and truth into a tale about feelings. This is silly and shallow.
The show further chips away at the original story’s core by making the adults too prominent. Spending their time arguing or emoting, they are unsure of themselves and are no help to the children at the Institute. Because of this, the trust formed between the children and the adults in the book is weak, or at the very least, implausible on-screen.
There are many other elements to dislike in the show, but for this review to list them risks its becoming a complaining tirade, when it is meant as a deeply disappointed admonishment (though no one at Disney will care). This is a beloved story, one filled with ingenuity and charm, and Disney squandered its chance to convey some truth to the world, opting instead for a few hours of disjointed and shallow television. What a shame.