A series of novels that sold 20 million copies-dominating the bestseller charts for four years-would seem to be a hot property for Hollywood moguls. Indeed, Left Behind, based on the first title in the endtimes series by evangelist Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, has been made into a movie. Already released on video, the film is set for theatrical release on Feb. 2.
But Hollywood moguls were not particularly interested in the project, leaving it to Christian filmmakers, who, in their desire to make a Hollywood-caliber movie, found themselves ensnared in some Hollywood-like controversies.
Shortly after the first of the novels came out in 1996, Namesake Entertainment purchased the film rights. The plan was to spend $40 million, enough money for a top-flight cast, Spielberg-quality special effects, and production values to rival any other Hollywood product. The movie was to come out on Jan. 1, 2000, cashing in on the endtimes speculations associated with the new millennium.
Namesake shopped the project around to numerous Hollywood studios, but they, reportedly, either turned it down or wanted to tone down the script's Christian message. The company ended up contracting with a studio, Cloud Ten, that had put out other endtimes thrillers that went straight to video: Tribulation, Revelation, and Apocalypse. Both Namesake and Cloud Ten define themselves as Christian organizations.
Cloud Ten spent only $17.4 million to make the movie. Though the sum is far more than other Christian-oriented productions have spent, Mr. LaHaye was disappointed. Not only did it lack the big-screen impact he envisioned, the project came in a year later than he had planned-and he sued Namesake Entertainment and Cloud Ten, claiming breach of contract. Spokesmen for the two organizations say (according to the Religion News Service) that Mr. LaHaye's original deal was negotiated before the novels were megahits, and that he is seeking a better contract now that the titles are more valuable. Mr. LaHaye's spokesman said the issue is not money but communication of a strong Christian message.
Though this sort of lawsuit is common in the entertainment industry, it seems to violate the principles of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, which forbids Christians from suing each other, saying that it is better to be defrauded than to settle disputes in worldly courts.
What about the movie itself? Christians who do not accept pretribulation, premillennialist eschatology will have to suspend not only their disbelief. They will also have to suspend their beliefs. The one recognizable star is Kirk Cameron, teenage heartthrob in the 1980s sitcom Growing Pains, who plays the reporter who uncovers the Antichrist's plot. Mr. Cameron, a committed Christian, does a creditable job, though he looks much too young for the part.
The movie has some amusing this-car-will-be-abandoned-in-case-of-Rapture scenes, including one on an airplane, in which the Christian passengers and children under 12 disappear, leaving their clothes behind. It also has lots of good shots against the UN and the notion of one-world government. The Antichrist starts as a Mother Teresa-like benefactor of humanity, portrayed with commendable creepiness, who turns against the corporate masters who put him into power. Just as the plot thickens, the movie ends, opening the way to sequels, if Mr. LaHaye allows them to be made.
The film, though more ambitious than many in the genre, remains a B-movie, with a straight-to-video look. Its best scenes are those that raise genuine spiritual-as opposed to geopolitical-issues: The reporter realizing the truth of the Bible and coming to faith. The airline pilot realizing that his church-going wife, to whom he had been unfaithful, was right after all. The black preacher who finds that his congregation has been raptured, while he has been left behind.
These scenes show what truly Christian movies entail: not so much big-budget spectacles of the end of the world, but the infinitely more dramatic human transformations wrought by the gospel. There is a glut of Christian movies about the Apocalypse, but the challenge for Christian filmmakers is to present Christ in a way that is both wonderful and believable-not phony or contrived-and that makes Christianity seem real, not the plot of a B-movie.
Christian filmgoers might be content with works that are not explicitly evangelistic at all, but which simply come out of a moral universe. Making those kinds of films is a worthy enough vocation for Christians in the movie business. But there is a place for films that explore spiritual issues in light of the gospel. Christian filmmakers have other projects currently in production that reportedly feature high standards, both theologically and artistically. Maybe they will provide more light than legal heat.