Movies and TV
6 Reasons the Left Behind Books Suck (And Why the Movie Might, Too)

Phil Owen | 2 Oct 2014 15:00
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Sure, they're touted as best-selling novels, but the Left Behind books -- and maybe this week's movie release -- just aren't very good.

In 2014, the Left Behind franchise is mostly a fringe curiosity -- this week's film adaptation of the 1995 novel that started it all seems notable more because it stars Nicolas Cage than because it's the spawn of what was in the late '90s a pop culture phenomenon.

And it was a phenomenon. All 16 books sold well, with the ninth achieving such lofty heights as being the bestselling book in the world in 2001. And it's easy to see how that happened, with the series being a lengthy piece of speculative fiction about the end of the world according to (an interpretation of) Biblical prophecy.

The title "Left Behind" refers to the Rapture, wherein all Christian people disappear out of their clothes and go to heaven while everybody who is left has seven years of horrible stuff -- war, plagues, earthquakes, and other Judgments from God -- ahead of them. This period, dubbed the Tribulation, sees a man named Nicolae Carpathia head up a new world government seemingly overnight in the wake of the disappearances. Also, Carpathia is the Antichrist, and he's the Worst Person Ever.

The entire "main saga" of Left Behind is told over the course of 16 flippin' books -- plus there's a YA spinoff series with teenagers, video games, graphic novels and previous film adaptations as well. I made it about halfway through the series when I was a kid, but recently I gave it another shot and got to the end. It was a truly painful journey, because the books are mostly awful, and I have lots of stuff to complain about, as both a professional media critic and somebody who has studied the Bible more than most people.

I have collected an unfathomable number of gripes over the course of reading these 16 books, far too many to discuss them all in one article. So here's some of the big ones.

1. The good guys are actually just assholes
Let's lay down the stakes of this tale right here at the start. At the beginning of the original book, there is just over seven years until the end of the world, and during those seven years, three-fourths of the human population of Earth will die as a result of God's judgments and the Antichrist ruling the world with a profoundly dickish government.

Aside from the physical violence, there's a race against the clock for souls. Christians go to heaven, everyone else goes to hell, and the good guys need to, to put it bluntly, try to rack up as high a score as they possibly can. Whether or not you're down with Christianity in real life, if you're gonna read the books you just kinda have to roll with it.

I explained this conflict in rather vapid terms, but obviously if you're in the middle of this it becomes a pretty substantial fight. The eternal fate of all mankind is at stake and this spiritual war is drawing to a close and you're either with us or against us and we really really would hope you're with us.

But there's a funny conversation that occurs about ten thousand times throughout this series, and it goes like this:

Non-Christian: "I go to church, I believe in God, I'm a pretty good dude, That should get me into heaven, right?"
Christian: "Nope, there's more to it than just that."

Now, if these conversations continued on in like a chill way like that, it'd be ok because these books totally are about spreading the Gospel and so forth. But they're never chill, instead continuing like this.

Non-Christian: "Hey man I don't know why gotta be all up in my face about this. You're a real piece of work and I hate you."
Christian: "LOLSMH"

The main issue I have here is that for about 14 of the 16 books, the Christians generally do not care that much about anyone but folks who have already converted and those nonbelievers who they were already friends with. The souls of billions are at stake, and they're all important, we're told, but even so you never see any of our heroes mourn the death of an unsaved person who is now burning in hell. They might weep for several books in a row about their dead saved friends, but there's a disturbing lack of general anguish about a conflict that has higher stakes than any other in history. They just never feel the weight of that struggle beyond the emotional turmoil caused by whatever has happened to them personally. It's very strange. There are so many reasons to be an emotional wreck in this situation, but they mostly avoid the most obvious ones. You know, the ones that involve giving a shit about the lost folks out there.

Narratively, this created a huge divide between me and almost all of the good guys. In this story, their moral superiority is clearly warranted because they are right about everything, but the lack of humanity is hard to get behind. And unfortunately, a related issue I have with how this story is told probably prevented many readers from taking note of this. Which leads me too my next item...

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