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The Boxcar Children are getting a movie. Here’s how they became immortal crime fighters.

The Boxcar Children
The Boxcar Children.
Albert Whitman & Company
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The Boxcar Children is one of those domestic fantasies, like The Little House books or The Secret Garden, that is oddly appealing to children. Four orphans — Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny — have no one to take care of them and nowhere to go, so they find an abandoned boxcar in the woods and set up a little house for themselves. Whole paragraphs are devoted to their ingenious domesticity; author Gertrude Chandler Warner describes in luxurious detail how Jessie keeps the butter cold by hiding it behind a waterfall, and how Benny dotes on the pink cup he found in a trash heap.

The book ultimately became a series that today contains more than 100 titles. And now its heroes are headed to the big screen. Shout Factory and Legacy Classics recently announced their plans to adapt the books into at least four animated movies. While the first film won’t enter wide release until 2017, a trailer is already floating around online, giving us an early look at what is only the latest of the many, many adaptations this franchise has seen. And with every adaptation, its original premise gets more and more diluted.

The first version of The Boxcar Children was kind of terrifying

The Box-Car Children (note the hyphen!) was first published in 1924, and, as Jia Tolentino notes at the New Yorker, compared to the version most of us grew up with, the 1924 text is harrowing. The box-car children’s father drinks himself to death on page one, and the children are traumatized by losing their parents. The domesticity of the box-car offers a welcome respite from the darkness of the orphans’ past.

In 1942, Warner adapted her own book, streamlining the plot and simplifying the vocabulary for younger readers and ESL students. She also severely curtailed the backstory. In fact, she eliminated it entirely. In that new edition, called The Boxcar Children, the titular foursome appears to have no past and no parents to mourn. They arrive on the page orphaned; they have always been orphaned; they are no man’s daughters and no man’s sons.

The revised Boxcar Children was wildly successful and has never gone out of print. Eventually Warner expanded it into a series. But of course, she had already resolved the central problem of the orphans’ lives. At the end of their inaugural adventure, they reunite with their estranged and wealthy grandfather and, newly rich, move out of their boxcar and into their grandfather’s mansion.

Once the book became a series, the boxcar children abruptly started solving mysteries

What kind of stories can you tell about a passel of wealthy orphans living in domestic bliss with their doting grandfather? Why, mysteries, of course! At least that’s what Warner seems to have concluded, because although the The Boxcar Children does not contain a single mystery in and of itself, the series it spawned came to be called The Boxcar Children Mysteries. In each book the children go off on a new vacation, stumble into a mystery — usually because of Benny, that troublemaker — and manage to solve the whole thing. The missing treasure was inside the mysterious cave all along!

But Warner tries to preserve the appeal of the original book. You love The Boxcar Children because it’s fun to read about the kids creating coziness and order amid wilderness and chaos, so in each of the sequels Warner wrote, the children find themselves setting up camp in a forest or a cave or an abandoned house. And, inevitably, Jessie will wipe her misty eyes and declare, “This is just like the dear old boxcar days!”

Of course, it isn’t just like the dear old boxcar days. In the dear old boxcar days, the children were feral, living off garbage and their wits; in the subsequent books, they’re rich kids briefly roughing it on a break from their busy schedules of endless vacations and crime solving.

Warner wrote 19 Boxcar Children books in all, concluding with Benny’s Mystery in 1976. Her books span roughly eight years — Henry is 14 in the first, starts college in the eighth, and is approaching graduation in Benny’s Mystery — and all take place in some amorphous early-20th-century time. The children send and receive telegrams. Cars are new and not overwhelmingly common.

After Warner’s death, ghostwriters took over the series

Warner died in 1979, but her publisher, Albert Whitman & Co., wasn’t about to let that be the end of the boxcar children. In 1991, the company unleashed a small army of ghostwriters onto the franchise, and there they remain to this day. The Celebrity Cat Caper, which came out in May 2016, is the 143rd volume in the franchise — and that’s without counting the Boxcar Children Specials series, which adds another 23 books to the count.

For simplicity’s sake, the ghostwriters made certain modifications to Warner’s conventions to keep the stories going. The children have been de-aged back to their book one selves. Henry is now perpetually 14 and over-serious, Benny perpetually 7 and precocious. Time, meanwhile, slips forward: Book 20 isn’t set exactly in the '90s, but there are phones and cars and airplanes. If Warner’s books were set vaguely the first half of the 20th century, the ghostwriters of the '90s set them vaguely in the second half.

In the process, the cozy domesticity in the midst of wilderness that was so necessary to Warner’s books disappeared altogether. Now the boxcar children stay in luxury hotels to solve The Mystery of the Purple Pool. There’s no need to remark on how much anything is like “the dear old boxcar days,” because nothing is anything like the dear old boxcar days.

The boxcar children have evolved from scrappy, independent kids to wealthy tweens who solve crime

Since 1924, here’s the evolution of The Boxcar Children:

  • It begins as distressing story of survival; the box-car is a symbol of stability and comfort in a cruel and uncertain world.
  • Then it’s adapted into a cheerful domestic tale of backstory-less orphans keeping an immaculate and cozy home for themselves in the middle of the wilderness.
  • That more lighthearted book is expanded into a series of stories about rich children solving mysteries, while also occasionally creating immaculate and cozy homes for themselves in the middle of the wilderness, and all the while continuing to age and progress through time like normal humans.
  • The franchise ultimately becomes an ongoing series of stories about rich children solving mysteries in various luxurious accommodations, forever the same age, while time passes inexorably around them.

What does the future hold for these orphans?

We don’t yet know what the Boxcar Children movies will look like. Judging by the trailer, the first one draws heavily from the 1942 version of the first book, but there’s no word yet on what will happen in subsequent volumes.

Perhaps the films will continue to draw from Warner’s books, going one by one from Surprise Island to The Yellow House Mystery to Mystery Ranch.

Or they might pull from later volumes in the series, and take the boxcar children from The Growling Bear Mystery to The Mystery of the Lake Monster.

Perhaps they’ll finally give the boxcar children a merciful end and conclusion to their adventures.

Or perhaps they’ll continue on as the book series has, until in the end there is nothing left but the boxcar children, forever preadolescent and precocious, solving mysteries in perpetuity with their immortal grandfather, as the world decays around them.