Written By: Sophie Archambault
When Disney+ announced they were creating a series based on Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, my heart soared, and then my stomach dropped. I’m tired of Disney’s never-ending sequels and remakes, so I get excited when they pull new stories from beloved literature. Of course, this doesn’t always yield the desired results—think the Percy Jackson movies which disappointed even Rick Riordan, or 2020’s Artemis Fowl, which got such an embarrassingly low Rotten Tomatoes score, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it. The Mysterious Benedict Society is one of my favorite middle-grade books and, as it’s so close to my heart, I was unsure whether to even give it a chance. It was only at my sister’s urging that I decided to take the plunge and spend eight hours of my life watching Buster Bluth send children into danger and, man, do I regret it. All lovers of the original text: run.
My first and biggest problem with this series is everything to do with Mr. Benedict/Mr. Curtain. Nicholas Benedict and Ledroptha Curtain are meant to be kind of old; Mr. Benedict exudes a grandfatherly benevolence. The two also have narcolepsy, which Curtain conceals with a wheelchair and sunglasses, very important details that went ignored in this adaptation. For some reason, Tony Hale, best known as the bumbling Buster Bluth on Arrested Development, was chosen for the dual role. This is not to say actors can’t have range and if Hale had been made to look older, if Mr. Curtain had his wheelchair and sunglasses, I might have been able to get behind him. Hale just looks too young, and I especially took issue with Mr. Curtain’s appearance, which is akin to a slimy business bro with a midlife-crisis Ferrari in his garage. My personal dream cast would have Gary Oldman, Mandy Patinkin, or Denzel Washington in the role, though I’m sure they’re all too A-list.
Someone in charge of making absurd choices also decided to give Mr. Curtain a son: S.Q. Pedalian. S.Q. appears in the book as a slightly oblivious student at the school the Society infiltrates. Making him Mr. Curtain’s son is an extremely odd choice, one that, if it does anything, only humanizes the villain of the story in an unwelcome way.
My other major gripe with this show is Constance, probably the best character in the book. At the end of the book, she is revealed to be two years old (the other children are all eleven). She can destroy the Whisperer through sheer childish stubbornness and her love of the word “no.” It’s tricky to pull off this age-centric plot twist in a show with actual children both optically and practically. However, the show creators’ solution to this problem was to make Constance psychic. Her battle with the Whisperer is frankly anti-climactic and mostly features Constance turning red in the face while the control board sparks. I think this show would’ve worked better as an animated series and would be better able to pull off a toddler-genius Constance.
This isn’t to say Disney failed on every count. The aesthetic was pleasantly off-beat, the same kind of quirky, vintage alternate world as Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Mr. Benedict’s team was satisfactory, Jackson and Jillson were perfectly odd and in synch, and there were moments I actually laughed out loud. While Milligan wasn’t exactly as I expected (to be
honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Gerry Bertier in the role) his brilliantly delivered monologue in episode two won me over. Overall, though, the screen adaptation didn’t do it for me. The show gave far too much attention to the adult characters, delving into Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain’s childhood and adding various plotlines of interpersonal drama. This didn’t add anything particularly interesting and only served to distract from the resourceful, clever kids at the center of the story. It strayed too far from the source material and ultimately missed the mark.