Courtesy of Disney+

July 22, 2021

“The Mysterious Benedict Society” and Childhood Nostalgia

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To my surprise, I recently opened Disney+ to find a TV adaptation of one of my favorite childhood book series: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. Looking back on what I read as a kid, this series vividly stands out. Not only do I still own all the books (stuffed somewhere on my bookshelf), but I clearly remember what it was like to read some of the scenes for the first time (my favorite being the prisoner’s dilemma scene from the third book). So, I was immediately intrigued when I found the TV adaptation, though also cautious — so many book-to-screen adaptations have ended poorly, so I wasn’t about to get my hopes up for this one.  

That being said, I dove in, excited to reconnect with this childhood favorite. As I began watching, I was immediately impressed by how true to the book the show is. With its vivid details, colors and music, the show visually brings to life what I imagined when I first read the books.  The settings and costumes are also incredibly striking, creating a particular colorful, retro look.    

The Mysterious Benedict Society follows four incredibly smart children who are selected by the eccentric Mr. Benedict to go on a top-secret mission to stop “The Emergency.” The story begins by following Reynie Muldoon as he joins many other children in taking a mysterious series of tests, from knowledge-based ones to tests of character to puzzles. Reynie soon meets the three other children — Kate Wetherall, George “Sticky” Washington and Constance Contraire — who all pass Mr. Benedict’s tests, soon learning that they have been recruited to discover who is behind The Emergency. The show follows them as they go on an undercover mission to a mysterious school, where Mr. Benedict believes The Emergency is being constructed via subliminal messages sent out to the public. 

One of the first things that struck me when watching was the intro theme — it somehow fits so perfectly. The sequence features music that is both whimsical and mysterious, exactly fitting the tone of the show. The actors’ names roll along with the music, accompanied by unique, hand-drawn illustrations which reminded me of the front covers of the book series. Seeing this intro sequence immediately brought back a wave of nostalgia for the series and reassured me that the TV adaptation was going in the right direction.     

Overall, while the plot is intriguing, the highlight of this show for me (especially as someone revisiting the story) are the characters. Like in the books, the characters are a perfect blend of intelligent, funny and brave. Beyond this, though, what I remember most from when I first read these books was that each of the four children are smart in a unique way, and that no one way is seen as better than the others. Over the years since I read The Mysterious Benedict Society, this theme has managed to stick with me. When I was younger, I aspired to be like each of the characters in different ways, and together they served as an example of the importance of teamwork and friendship (pretty cliché children’s book themes, yes, but ones I think are sweet nonetheless).  

The show manages to maintain this spirit, showing the friendships that form between the kids and the varied ways that they approach challenges. I really like how the show portrayed the puzzle stage of Mr. Benedict’s tests, which was one of my favorite scenes from the book. The screen splits into boxes as you simultaneously watch all four children solve the puzzle in unique ways, the puzzle being that they have to cross a checkerboarded room without stepping on any blue or black squares. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this effect to be distracting or out-of-place, as it seemed to fit well with the general eccentricity of the story and characters. In fact, I think it served as a good way to demonstrate the importance of each of the four children without foregrounding one over the other. Ultimately, the lovable depiction of the characters, from the four children to Mr. Benedict and the other adults leading the mission, shines at the heart of this show.        

Watching this adaptation of The Mysterious Benedict Society has been the perfect dose of nostalgia for me — even though I’m much older than the target audience now, this show has still been fun to watch. While watching, I’ve noticed some things that I brushed over when I was younger, like the very vague social commentary through The Emergency (which is not really explored in the show, at least so far). Yet other than this, the show seems like a moment frozen in time, bringing me back to the cozy days I spent frantically reading as a kid.  

During the pandemic, I found myself watching more and more shows meant for a younger audience to get that sense of nostalgia and watch something comforting. And it’s not just me. Remakes of children’s books and TV are constantly popping up, whether it be an adaptation like The Mysterious Benedict Society or an updated reboot like we’ve seen with Paramount+’s new iCarly meant for an older audience. Kids shows on Netflix have also seen more popularity, such as when Avatar: The Last Airbender was released on Netflix last summer and saw a big spike in popularity across ages.    The popularity of shows like these speaks to the power of childhood nostalgia for our generation. While the world becomes more grim, we can turn back to these shows for a comforting, known storyline. The Mysterious Benedict Society is perfect for just that; so, whether you’re a returning fan like me or someone new to the story, this show is a great chance to wrap yourself up in a whimsical storyline.

Emma Leynse is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. She currently serves as an Assistant Arts Editor on The Sun’s 139th Editorial  board.