'Left Behind': when God becomes a Hollywood monster

A terrible book about the apocalypse gets even bleaker


I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to walk out of a terrible Nicolas Cage movie thinking about theodicy.

From the moment it was announced, I developed a morbid curiosity about the latest attempt at a film adaptation of Left Behind, the 1995 novel that kicked off a wildly popular series about the Christian Rapture. No matter how terrible they were, for a certain wave of evangelical, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ novels were a cultural touchstone. They were part of a rich tradition of religiously charged science fiction, a ripped-from-the-headlines chronicle of the end of days “factually” based on close analysis (but creative interpretation) of the Bible. And the movie, I thought, could be campy enough to transcend its source material. So in a nearly empty Manhattan multiplex theater, I saw Left Behind on opening night.

Left Behind

As it turns out, Left Behind has very little to do with the novel it’s based on. In many ways, that’s a very good thing. The first book in LaHaye’s series follows two protagonists: "revered" airline pilot Rayford Steele and superstar journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams. Unexplained disappearances rock the world, and a charismatic Antichrist rises to power, while Rayford, his daughter Chloe, and Buck prepare to survive the end times as part of the guerrilla "Tribulation Force." This all sounds tremendously exciting, until you realize that both men are arrogant and vindictive bores, the Rapture is forgotten within a few chapters, and the Antichrist is a minor Romanian politician jockeying for leadership of the UN.

With its unpleasant characters, glacial pace, and bizarre preoccupation with phone calls and travel plans, Left Behind may be one of the dullest books (and most cynical money grabs, since its story would be stretched over 15 more volumes and a young adult series) to ever hit the bestseller lists. A 2000 film adaptation, starring Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains, didn’t redeem it.

I’m reasonably confident guessing the original script for this version of Left Behind was not written for Tim LaHaye’s megafranchise at all. The characters and basic setup of the book are channeled into a disaster movie about Rayford (played by Nicolas Cage) struggling to land his plane amid the chaos of millions of people inexplicably disappearing. It’s more Langoliers than Leftovers: runways have gone dark, fuel is running low, and the remaining passengers are growing more paranoid by the minute. There’s no UN, no Antichrist, and in fact the whole plot of the movie covers 25 pages in the book — although, granted, they’re probably the most exciting 25 pages.

The whole plot of the movie covers 25 pages in the book

Left Behind is far less overtly religious than its source. But stripping out almost the entire plot reveals a grim story about religion, evil, and salvation. One of the long-running criticisms of the series, covered at length in writer Fred Clark’s brilliant deconstruction of the novels, is that it’s a fundamentalist revenge fantasy, where an angry God comes back to give sinners their just deserts. The book portrays most of those left behind as either willfully ignorant or outright evil, to the point of including a conversation about how doctors are upset that there are no fetuses left to abort. In turning an evangelical book into a semi-secular movie, the filmmakers somehow, perhaps accidentally, made the story even bleaker: God is capricious and terrifying, and he is going to hurt you.

In any medium, this is an inescapable fact of Left Behind, and of most Christian accounts of the apocalypse. Still, it’s usually balanced by descriptions of God’s love and a promise of protection and eternal life if sinners are born again. Someone may question why God allows evil in the world — as Chloe frequently does in the film — but they’re quickly set straight. Fans of Left Behind in particular often describe it as a hopeful book, promising that redemption is still possible after believers disappear. Whether or not it’s convincing, there’s at least an assertion that God is, in fact, good, and people who reject him are getting what they deserve.

Left Behind

There’s relatively little discussion of Christian beliefs in Left Behind, except for a few quotes about natural disasters and a sudden apocalypse. It plays the apocalypse straight, the way any science fiction movie might. And absent the lens of theology, God is simply a mysterious force that’s directly behind millions of disappearances and indirectly behind millions more outright deaths. Raptured Christians come off less as beacons of truth and more like members of a Cthulhoid death cult who were right in our midst all along. Left Behind half-heartedly hews to the idea that the people who remain will benefit from having their lives changed, but its characters aren’t written harshly enough to be selfish, ignorant stereotypes or well enough to be good-intentioned but flawed individuals. They’re just decent people, suffering. So without the Antichrist to play off, we see only the pure wrath of an unstoppable being that shows up, steals your loved ones, and demands that you be thankful for it. God doesn’t simply allow evil, he plays the part himself.

Unfortunately, Left Behind has bigger problems as simple entertainment. It starts with an aimless, meandering half-hour of pointless banter and earnest discussion between major characters, interspersed with almost completely extraneous vignettes of people who will never be seen again. Chloe and Buck are introduced with a forced meet-cute, and the passengers on Rayford’s plane are thinly drawn cliches created to fill supernatural-disaster-movie quotas. Nicolas Cage is the film’s biggest star, but he’s sadly reserved here, removing one of the biggest reasons to watch Left Behind in the first place.

All we see is an unstoppable being that shows up, steals your loved ones, and demands that you thank him for it

There’s a solid half-hour of enjoyable action flick in Left Behind. The premise of a handful of people (well, the plane actually still seems reasonably full, but the movie quickly forgets about anyone in coach class) trapped in the sky and trying not to turn against each other is too much fun to ruin completely, even if much of the drama seems sudden, manufactured, and unconvincing. Very little of what Chloe does on the ground during that time makes narrative sense, but she moves fast enough that it doesn’t matter too much. But the movie is stretched too thin over too many genres: it’s a series of personal dramas stitched into an action movie with the occasional element of horror, backed by cheap special effects and sudden shifts between secular and Christian themes.

Left Behind bears some of the hallmarks of a made-for-TV religious movie, including a bland, schmaltzy, and often totally inappropriate score — it ends with a contemporary gospel-sounding cover of Larry Norman’s "I Wish We’d All Been Ready," from the 1970s Rapture-themed film A Thief in the Night. Technically, it hews reasonably close to the novel’s interpretation of the end times. I’m sure the studio is depending on Christian audiences to boost ticket sales, especially since Left Behind would be little more than a by-the-numbers action movie without the big-name connection. But it’s not really accurate to call it a "Christian film," and strangely, that tension might be the only interesting thing about it.

Hollywood is occasionally criticized for toning down religious themes to make films more broadly palatable, whether that means softening something supporting a given faith or something attacking it. By apparently attempting the former, though, Left Behind indicts the darkest parts of its source text, in a way that’s somehow more pointed than secular stories that use the Rapture as a backdrop. There’s no gotcha here, no mockery of religion, no revelation that God is not what He seems. Just a loose translation that shows how strange, how cruel, an idea can look when exposed to the harsh light of genre storytelling.

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