Waiting for the Antichrist: An Examination of Left Behind's Economics and Audience
Christians have been thinking about the end of the world since the beginning of their religious history. Some biblical texts, such as the Book of Revelation, have been interpreted as a road map of the End Times that await humanity once the universe has been around long enough and God decides it is time to pack it in. A preoccupation with the end of the world has been woven into Western art throughout the ensuing centuries, including Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" and Albrecht Dürer's Apocalypse woodcuts.
In recent times, secular culture has been focused on the apocalyptic, thanks to recurring millennialism, the Mayan-related anxieties of 2012, and the ever-present threat of ecological collapse and climate change. This fascination with the end of the world also informs contemporary secular texts. Recent movies, like This Is the End, and TV shows, like The Leftovers, mine doomsday anxieties and build on this history of apocalyptic texts to entertain secular audiences. A genre of Christian fiction also directly addresses these concerns. It's not shocking that an eschatological evangelical Christian text like Left Behind would be published and adapted into film, or that one of these adaptations would aspire to reach a larger, secular audience, during this period. The overlap between secular and religious anxieties about the end of the world creates the opportunity for Christian filmmakers to produce Christian eschatological films that appeal to a range of audiences.
The series of novels is remarkably popular. According to its website, the original, sixteen-volume Left Behind series of novels has exceeded 63 million copies in sales, "making it the bestselling Christian fiction in history." Clearly the series' authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, have found an audience as the original series begat prequels, a series of young adult novels, video games, and films. The original Left Behind novel has been adapted into film twice. One film was released in 2000 and the other in 2014. Notable differences also exist between the two adaptations. These films have a built-in audience of readers and believers. However, that audience is not large enough to guarantee mainstream box office success, and both films received cold critical receptions.
Left Behind's core audience is evangelical Christians, or "evangelicals" for short. Evangelicals are not a monolithic group. Many leftists tend to categorize all evangelicals as backwards, conservative, fundamentalist, anti-choice, Protestant Christians, but this stereotype is not an accurate description of the whole. Progressive evangelicals like Jimmy Carter exist. Evangelicals can also be either Protestant or Catholic, although some conservative Protestant evangelicals display antipathy toward Catholics. While there are many denominations of evangelical Christianity with substantial differences of belief, they are united by a common emphasis on constructing personal faith narratives that explain how the converted serve the Lord through everyday actions. They also share the belief in biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is divinely inspired and infallible and should be interpreted literally. One controversial interpretation which arises from Biblical literalism is "dispensational premillennialism," or DP for short. In this approach, historical and literary context are largely ignored in favor of treating prophetic verses in biblical books like Daniel, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Revelation as if they foretell the fate of humankind. However, DP is by no means the dominant, well-accepted evangelical approach to eschatology.
Although it is controversial, DP is the scriptural interpretative framework on which the incredibly popular Left Behind series is based. Therefore, the series can be thought of as a historical fiction novel of events destined to occur in the future. Early in Left Behind's eponymous first novel, millions of people from all over the planet suddenly vanish from the face of the earth, leaving their clothes behind where they were once sitting or standing. Faithful (evangelical Protestant, of course) Christians have been taken from Earth to be with God in Heaven. The Rapture has occurred. Billions of individuals have been left behind—hence the name of the book—and the search for an explanation for the event begins.
The book focuses on a handful of characters who were not Raptured and seek to find meaning in their lives after this terrifying event. These characters include Rayford Steele, who was flying a plane when the Rapture occurred, and lost his wife and son in the event, and Rayford's adult daughter, Chloe. Ace reporter Cameron "Buck" Williams, a passenger on Rayford's plane, joins the Steeles in their quest. Their pursuit of information is guided by Pastor Bruce Barnes, who is distraught that his lack of faith kept him from being Raptured along with the members of his congregation. During this tumultuous time, Nicolae Carpathia, a charming Romanian politician, rises to power as the Secretary General of the United Nations. With Bruce's guidance, Rayford, Chloe, and Buck convert to Christianity, and form what they call the "Tribulation Force." They realize that Nicolae is the Antichrist. This, of course, hints at interpretations of the Book of Revelation and a distrust in the United Nations that permeates some segments of the conservative evangelical community. In succeeding novels of the Left Behind series, the plot continues to be driven by the Tribulation Force's conflict with the Antichrist. It's worth noting that has been criticized as reductionist and sensationalist. The novels in this series contain problematic depictions of non-Protestant Christians, other faith traditions, and the non-religious.
The 2000 Left Behind film adaptation was filmed with a remarkably small $4 million budget. It grossed $2 million during its opening weekend, and eventually earned $4.2 million in domestic theaters overall, plus additional DVD sales. The film was critically panned and derided by secular viewers, but as box office stats demonstrate, it was somewhat popular among moviegoers, most of which were likely conservative evangelicals who were familiar with the source text. The cast featured relatively unknown actors, with the exception of Kirk Cameron, a successful child actor in the 1980s. Cameron's very public conversion to evangelical Christianity and subsequent change in career trajectory gave the film additional conservative "evangelical credibility." The 2000 Left Behind film's plot is largely faithful to the text, and does not try to obscure its theological source.
The 2014 film version of was also produced with a relatively low budget of $16 million. It grossed $6.3 million during its opening weekend with $14 million in domestic theater sales overall plus DVD sales. Like its 2000 counterpart, the film was dismissed by mainstream critics and moviegoers, but again it was somewhat popular among conservative evangelical moviegoers.
But the comparisons end here. Unlike its 2000 counterpart, the 2014 Left Behind adaptation features a cast that contains a number of actors who had achieved some degree of success in earlier secular projects. The cast includes Back to the Future's Lea Thompson, One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, The Blind Side's Quinton Aaron, and Olympic athlete Lolo Jones. The most surprising cast member is Academy Award-winner Nicholas Cage, whose affiliation with the film was questioned by die-hard Left Behind fans who voiced concern about Cage's lack of public profession of faith. Profession of faith is an expectation many evangelical audience members have for evangelical performers. Another controversial member of the Left Behind film team was Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, who was brought in as executive producer. Robertson's name recognition and involvement with this project undoubtedly helped to secure funding from conservative evangelical sources despite the film's overwhelmingly secular cast.
Tim LaHaye said of the 2014 film's script, "It's probably the worst script I've ever read. And I've read scores of them. The plot line is nothing like the book. The only thing they retain are the names of the people, and maybe places." Alonso Duralde, film critic and co-host of the Linoleum Knife podcast, succinctly summarizes the differences between the films, saying, "Whereas the first movie was all about the United Nations and the Antichrist and the one-world government, this one's about landing a plane." The 2014 film mentions God infrequently and omits any discussion of the Antichrist, both significant changes for a film adaptation of a novel about the conflict between devout Christians and the Antichrist with his minions. The exclusion of the Antichrist in the 2014 film was a gamble which did not pay back in box office success.
The 2014 version focuses completely on the first part of the novel and takes liberties with it. Rayford pilots a plane as the Rapture occurs with Buck onboard. Passengers take notice that loved ones are missing, and they struggle to understand what has happened mid-flight. Unexpectedly, an out-of-control plane strikes Rayford's plane, transforming the former Rapture/Antichrist plot into a post-Rapture plane wreck drama. Buck is enlisted to help Rayford contact Chloe on the ground to attempt a crash landing. Eventually, Rayford safely lands the plane. The action sequence is thrilling, if a bit unbelievable, but this movie is neither from the source text nor a remake of the 2000 film. Another notable plot deviation occurs when a new character, Shasta, portrayed by Sparks, threatens people on board the plane with a gun while demanding that her Raptured daughter be returned, and blames her wealthy athlete ex-husband for the child's disappearance. Shasta, a Black woman, is portrayed as emotional, irrational, and violent. Buck, portrayed as a rational white man, eventually calms her down. Instead of exploring the grief and fear a mother would feel during the traumatic event of the disappearance of her child from a plane 35,000 feet above the ground, which could be very moving and nuanced, Shasta is a rendered into an ugly stereotype, and her part of the plot does little to move the story along.
The 2014 version of Left Behind was clearly intended to appeal to a broader audience as a disaster film with a soupçon of theology. It is rumored to be the first film in a franchise. The filmmakers initiated a crowd-funding attempt to raise money for the sequel. Despite offering perks like advanced screening tickets, an associate producer credit, and a spot on the "advisory panel" that advises the filmmakers on "casting decisions, plot development, [and] artwork decisions," the campaign raised only 16% of the $500,000 goal. This lack of enthusiasm indicates that the endeavor to drum up interest in a franchise reboot that balances Christian theology with secular, mainstream appeal might prove challenging. Paul Lalonde, the film's writer and producer, has also been quiet about when, if ever, the Antichrist will make an appearance in the rebooted film series. The introduction of the Antichrist could bolster the film's appeal to both Christian and general audiences; however, it could also backfire. Much of the audience's reaction to this character depends on how it is developed and portrayed.
Evangelical filmmaking is experiencing a period of growth. Kirk Cameron's 2011 film Courageous cost $2 million to make and grossed almost $28 million domestically, showing that the faith-based film market can be profitable. Additionally, 2014's God's Not Dead, featuring Kevin Sorbo, best known as TV's Hercules, generated wide interest, dialog, and evangelical audience engagement through social media. Like Left Behind, these films are often mocked or ignored by general audiences because of their poor quality and overt religious messages. But unlike Left Behind, these films are not based on controversial interpretations of Christian scripture. Can dispensational premillennialism be a fun cinematic romp? Can any discussion of Christian interpretations of the end of the world be made palatable for a wider, not-necessarily-Christian audience? Audiences who are drawn to Christian apocalyptic texts want theology to be embedded in the texts; this content, in turn, alienates audiences who do not share these beliefs. This conflict seems destined to remain unresolved and unresolvable.
Tamara Watkins is a doctoral candidate in Media, Art, and Text at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her dissertation explores young adult evangelical Christian entertainment.Image credits:
"Lambertina Mexican Church" by Sam Kerson, watercolor,2013.
"Untitled" by Noah Gelfman, modified digital photograph, 2015.