Friday, June 06, 2008

Leave It Behind Part One

If there’s one thing that can be said about my taste in comic books when I was a kid, it is this: I didn’t have any.
Super hero comics, war comics, Archie comics, horror comics, Richie Rich comics, western comics, bicycle safety instruction comics, and even, God help me, Charlton comics: I read them all.
And I liked them.
I had such a love of the medium that I read everything I could get my hands on, and did so uncritically, believing that, simply because they were comic books they were, by default, good comic books.
Sure, I had my preferences, but in general I gladly read anything that had words and pictures and staples in the center.
As I got older, naturally, I developed a finer appreciation for what was good, and an understanding of what wasn’t, but in those early years, in many ways, it was all the same to me.
Which leads me to Left Behind.
There is pretty much no objective standard, or really even a defensible subjective standard, by which the Left Behind books, and, more to the point of this entry, the movie based on the books, can be deemed good.
It’s just not possible.
That is, of course, unless you are the books’ target audience, who, like young Jon with his uncritical mind, are incapable of seeing any flaws and love the books and movie simply because you love the medium, or, in this case, the message.
For your standard fundy fan of Left Behind, the message is all that matters. These books and movies “tell it like it is,” and considerations of quality storytelling elements like coherent plots, character development, and verisimilitude are for those heathen, unsaved intellectuals.
That lack of any semblance of critical thinking goes a long way towards explaining the otherwise inexplicable success of the books, and, more tellingly, how it is that the books’ fans came to believe the unbelievable, unpalatable, and utterly nihilistic theology that is at the center of the Left Behind series.
In any case, the point of this entry is to talk a little about the Left Behind movie and my thoughts on its quality, or, more accurately, lack thereof.
I’ll start first with a brief rundown of the story and the main characters.
At some point in the “near future,” an Israeli scientist named Dr. Jewy Jewenstein Chaim Rosenzweig has invited a “super fertilizer” that has transformed the arid, Israeli desert into the world’s breadbasket. This serves as the cue for the nations known in the Bible as Gog and Magog – identified in the 1970s by Christian author Hal Lindsey as Russia (though it was then, of course, the Soviet Union) and Ethiopia (no, I’m not kidding) – to launch a full-scale nuclear assault on Israel, because, really, why not?
Because it will piss off God, that’s why not. In a move that pretty much wipes away any doubt about His existence, God moves in to directly protect Israel from its enemies, causing the nukes to harmlessly detonate in the air, and totally eradicating the assembled Russian forces, and that one guy who served as Ethiopia’s contribution, to the assault on Israeli in a move that can only – and I stress the word only – be described as miraculous.
This utterly irrefutable proof of the existence of God is met with a combination of stifled yawns and “Gee, that was odd,” from the world at large.
Shortly thereafter, The Rapture occurs, as throughout the world true, Rapture-believing Christians, and every child below the vague and undefined “age of accountability” cut-off point, including unborn children, drop trou and vanish, leaving behind all of the sinners and the too-old children of the world, along with all of their clothes.
The movie seems to suggest that this amounts to about 130,000, 000 people total, while I believe that the book puts the number somewhere closer to a half a billion, but either number is far too low, even if we assume that the vast majority of self-identified Christians aren’t given the “Get Off of Earth Without Having to Die” card, as the children of the world alone would likely amount to a larger number.
Now, in the hands of a good writer, this could be the set up for a really thrilling and moving story that examines the impact of such a loss on those who were not taken.
In Left Behind, both the book and the movie, however, the disappearance of millions of people proves to be little more than a hiccup, and within days everything is pretty much back to normal, and the story that’s really on everyone’s mind is the selection of a new Secretary General of the United Nations, a charismatic man from Romania named Nicolae Carpathia.
The Carpathia story – Wait, are you still on about your mom and your children disappearing? Get over it; that was yesterday! What? Full-scale assault on Israel swept away by the hand of God? Who cares about that? There’s a good-looking guy taking over the U.N. – is even juicier than most people know, as it just so happens that, in addition to being charismatic, idealistic, and good-looking, Carpathia is actually the Antichrist.
So those are the basics of the story. Let’s meet the key players.

Rayford Steele: Airline pilot. Man’s man. Unsaved.
Chloe Steele: Rayford’s daughter. College student. Too smart for her own good, and, in her own words, “too blasted independent.”
Irene Steele: Rayford’s long-suffering and totally ignored prophecy-believing wife. Taken away in The Rapture.
Raymie Steele: Rayford’s son, also taken away. Called “Raymie” for no apparent reason, given that his actual name is Rayford Steele, Jr.
Cameron “Buck” Williams: Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time. 30 year-old virgin. In the book he’s a print journalist, but in the movie he’s a TV reporter.
Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Future Whore of Babylon. In the book she was involved in this perverse non-affair with Rayford, the details of which are too gruesome to delve into here. In the movie the affair is a lot less “non,” and considerably more pedestrian, mostly, I think, for the sake of expediency.
Bruce Barnes: Visitation Pastor at Rayford and Irene’s church. He knows all about the End Times prophecies, but never actually believed in them, or said the proper magic words that would have allowed him to be Raptured away. In the book he exists largely for the purposes of exposition, as the story needs someone who knows what’s going on, but if he’d actually believed he wouldn’t be around to serve that function. In the movie his function is to be a black guy. (Note: It’s entirely possible that Bruce is also black in the books, as, with the exception of some details about Rayford, we are never once given a description of what people actually look like. Ever. For all we know, Buck could be a drag queen, and Chloe could be a one-armed bearded lady. Hattie we at least know is blonde, as she’s described as “drop-dead gorgeous,” which clearly would not, in a book written by American fundamentalist Christians, allow her to to be anything other than the blue-eyed Aryan ideal.)
Nicolae Carpathia: Secretary General of the U.N. Antichrist. Smooth-talker.
Dr. Chaim Rosenzweig: Scientist, political adviser, and all-around smart guy. Kind of a Reed Richrads-style renaissance man with access to the highest levels of government secrets, for some reason. Also, I think he might be Jewish.
Jonathan Stonagal and Joshua Todd-Cothran: International bankers, which is basically a code word for “Jews who secretly run the world.” Nicolae’s puppetmasters. Or are they?

There’s really nothing notable about the casting in the movie, apart from the fact that Kirk Cameron stars as Buck, and, oddly enough, Cameron’s wife, actress Chelsea Noble (who met Kirk on the set of Growing Pains when she was cast as his girlfriend after Kirk had actress Julie McCullough, who had been playing his girlfriend, fired after he found out that she’d posed for Playboy), is cast in the role of Hattie. Given that Hattie eventually becomes the Whore of Babylon, it just seems like odd casting, and must have made for some awkward conversations at home:

KC: Guess what, honey? I’m going to play Buck Williams in the Left Behind Movie!
CN: That’s great, sweetheart! Is there a part for me?
KC: Of course! You’re going to play the Whore of Babylon.
CN: …

The limitations of running time necessitate that much of the story be changed in the movie. As mentioned, Rayford and Hattie’s affair is presented in a much more conventional manner. Beyond that, though, the circumstances of the principal characters meeting each other are changed dramatically, with Hattie and Buck, for example, having a pre-established friendship.
We are also treated to much shorter “long, dark night of the soul” scenes in which Rayford, Buck, and Chloe come to accept the truth of End Times prophecy, and say the magic words that, while too late to spare them from the horrors of the coming Tribulation, will at least ensure that they’re in Jesus’ good graces once he returns to run the Millennial Kingdom.
We’re also spared the truly, truly awful stalking courting of Chloe by Buck as presented in the book, and the horrific scene in which Rayford takes his daughter along for a meeting with Hattie, his pseudo-mistress, as he attempts to make up for the shoddy manner in which he treated her prior to The Rapture and by sharing the good news of the End Times Prophecy Checklist.
(As Fred – who is himself an Evangelical Christian – over at Slacktivist so often likes to point out, the theology of Left Behind isn’t about the Good News of Jesus, or even being pro-God, it’s all about being anti-Antichrist, and letting people – select people – in on the secret words that will make Jesus like them and checking off prophesied events as they occur.)
It’s worth noting that the “heroes” of Left Behind are all, well, douchebags. This is because the whole point of the books is to vicariously say, “I told you so” to all of the world’s unbelievers, and to fantasy about how wonderful it will be to be rewarded by Jesus while all of the rest of us are burning for all eternity. If there is one central message to all of the Left Behind books and movies, it is this: Neener neener neener!
(On that note, as this is turning out to be a lot longer than expected, I’ll call this “Part One” and post it.)

1 comment:

Merlin T Wizard said...

What Jon failed to note in this post is how livid he was at the liberties the movie took over the book. It was at least as amusing as Bruce's heart-felt talk with AngryJesus wherein he sinks to his knees with fist raised in the air and shouts, "Why God?" in his best William Shatner impression.