The only book I ever stole was a volume of Left Behind: The Kids.1 Swiped it straight from an Episcopalian church’s library in Florida. I was eleven (or so) and obsessed with the drama. Four kids (like me) were standing up to the biggest baddie of them all—the Antichrist.
I was also in love with Vicki Byrne, a “Young Trib Force” member who had red hair and was extremely heroic. But we don’t have to talk about that.
Left Behind: The Movie—the 2000 adaptation of the first novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins—is one of the few films I saw in theater as a child. A couple of years later, I saw Left Behind II: Tribulation Force on VHS and was so terrified of being left behind that as soon as I was alone I prayed the sinner’s prayer all over again.
My end-of-days fervor cooled until I found a copy of Nicolae at a yard sale and decided to try the grown-up Left Behind series. After all, these books had been a cultural phenomenon. That third book of the series thrilled me. It has one of the most chilling endings of any novel I’ve read. So I continued reading them, only souring once I got past The Indwelling and finally giving up on the second-to-last one because I grew frustrated over repeated missed narrative opportunities. For me, it was time to leave behind Left Behind.
Except the story caught up to me again—as a Nicholas Cage–led movie reboot in 2014, and then with Vanished, a 2016 adaptation of Left Behind: The Kids. Now after another Left Behind film, Rise of the Antichrist (supposedly a sequel to the 2014 outing), made its glorious appearance in theaters this year, we can say the franchise still has cultural staying power. (It’s been around longer than Harry Potter.)
While now-grown church kids suffer from Rapture anxiety and dispensational pre-millennialism loses theological adherents, the survival-dystopian-apocalypse aesthetic still has legs. We live in a world of bad news—pandemic, war and potential war, government gridlock, conspiracy theories, global financial collapse—and escapist-survival stories are the comfort food of the people. The drama of Earth’s (potential) last days, as imagined in Left Behind, would make a perfect streaming series adaptation in the vein of dystopocalypses such as The Leftovers, 12 Monkeys, The 100, and The Last of Us.
Here are four big ideas for anyone aiming to adapt Left Behind for the small screen.
1. There shall be no taming of the apocalypse.
We see two kinds of successful television adaptations. The first takes itself seriously and plays by a set of rules and internally consistent logic (think SYFY’s 12 Monkeys). The other goes off the rails from the start and doesn’t try to get back on (think Gotham or The 100). Adaptations that can’t decide whether to play it straight or play it silly don’t last long or garner acclaim. And there’s only one way a Left Behind streaming series can go: crazy.
The source material is deliriously trippy. And its source material is even more out of this world. If everything goes as planned, Jesus shows up with a giant sword coming out of his mouth. And whoever adapts Left Behind for the small screen shouldn’t shy away from that.
In Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist (2023), a character digs up a grave to see if 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 is true. That’s the kind of energy we need. If The 100 could get away with literally anything from seasons 4 through 7, there’s no excuse for a Left Behind streaming series to play it safe.
2. There shall be no preachiness.
I know this sounds like a bad thing to say as a Christian, but a Left Behind television adaptation must leave behind the preachiness of its forebears. TV shows that preach only ever preach to the choir. One Rise of the Antichrist review noted that the 2023 film is more “come-to-Jesus” than any of the films that came before, complete with Kevin Sorbo “breaking character to deliver a five-minute sermon straight into the camera—followed by three more minutes of Mike Huckabee leading viewers in prayer to accept Jesus into their hearts.”
I’m all for sermons and receiving Jesus. But hackneyed invitations only work when accompanied by fear and manipulation—and that is the legacy of pre-tribulation rapture doctrine and the religious and cultural trends associated with it. The Left Behind novels are, perhaps, the most extraordinarily religious speculative fiction series ever written; the stories themselves preach well enough and don’t need evangelistic add-ons, especially if much of the theology is misguided.
Depending on who picks up the Left Behind adaptation mantle next, this may not be much of a problem, but just in case, this next point should clarify things…
3. There shall be an intense focus on characters.
Shows like Squid Game became popular during the Covid pandemic. We’re especially attracted to dystopian dramas when our world is turned upside-down and survival seems like a luxury. We witness people like us wrestle with circumstances worse than our own. We get to sit in someone else’s shoes and ask ourselves what we would do in their situation.
So far, the Left Behind movies discouraged this type of free association by providing only two “outs” for most characters—salvation or allegiance to the Antichrist.2 With such narrow categorization, audiences are not encouraged to think, emote, or actively interrogate a character’s choices. This prevents viewers from being invested in the intricacies of meaningful living as the world collapses.
The Left Behind novels, however, are ripe with complex character journeys that play up the psychological angst of living in the Earth’s last days. For example, as E. Stephen Burnett describes, when Buck and Chloe have a child, she “is in anguish over the possibility that the Antichrist’s hordes could capture their son. Finally, she concludes that it would be better for her to kill him rather than let him fall into their hands.” Such icky human drama makes for successful, compelling stories.
4. There shall be a sudden joyous turn at the end.
The Left Behind series ends with a righteous, powerful, benevolent King descending from the sky, destroying the Antichrist and his evil cohort and establishing his kingdom on Earth. It has a happy ending, and a television adaptation need have no ambivalence about this: what some characters believe to be true comes to pass.
The Parousia is not a Christian event. This is a global event that will utterly reshape the known universe. Christ comes as sole and sovereign potentate, upending the world as we know it and putting it to rights.
If a Left Behind streaming series gets this far, it cannot end on the middling pretense of they all lived broodily ever after and struggled to build a peaceful society in a ruined world. Plenty of dystopian tales already have that ending. Such a denouement might seem “realistic,” but a Left Behind TV series cannot conclude in any other way than the one its theological outlook prescribes.
The triumph of the Ancient of Days is the only fitting end to this saga of Earth’s last days. Whether this happens in reality like Jenkins and LaHaye’s fictional version describes it is a moot point. In a Left Behind streaming series, this event must be portrayed as true—because all the stories are true. Even the ones that haven’t happened yet.
- Photo by Trinity Moss on Unsplash. ↩
- The original Left Behind movie trilogy’s arc focused on a character’s decision to believe in Jesus (and pre-millennial dispensationalism). Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Chaim Rosenzweig, and President Gerald Fitzhugh all confront this position. When the character chooses Christianity, he loses internal complexity and gains outsized certainty about his role. If the film series had continued, this would have created one-note characters and blocked real character development. ↩