Chad Michael Murray, Ashley Tisdale, Nicolas Cage from 'Left Behind'/Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
It’s been a little over five years since one of the most successful series in literary history wrapped up. The Christian thriller series Left Behind was a succession of bestselling novels that detailed a struggle between good and evil – and almost half of the books in the series made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List before the story’s climatic final battle. All in all, more than 63 million copies were sold and there was even one point where an estimated one out of eight Americans was reading one of the books. Well, get ready, because it’s coming back thanks to a big screen reboot – this time with Nicolas Cage.
The result of a partnership between minister Tim LaHaye and writer Jerry Jenkins, the first book in the series, simply titled Left Behind, was published in 1995. The story is a fictional depiction of the Christian apocalypse based on the interpretation of the prophesized End Times in the Bible. According to a variety of media profiles, the co-authors split duties; LaHaye constructed the overall plot and story arch based on his Biblical analysis, while Jenkins handled the characters, dialogue, settings, and everything else. The result is a Tom Clancy-like religious story that found success by appealing to both evangelical Christians and casual readers. Come for the international thriller plot, stay for the religion – and vice versa.
“Despite everything that’s come with the Left Behind phenomenon, I remain stunned to this day,” coauthor Jerry Jenkins told me in a recent e-mail exchange. “During the heyday of interest in the series, the first title alone was averaging 275,000 sales each month, and for two consecutive years, the series sold in the 10 million-copy range,” he explained.
With sales numbers like that, movie studios came calling. “Hollywood didn’t know what to make of Left Behind,” said Jenkins, who still recalls studio execs asking if the story could be done without a religious angle. In the end, LaHaye and Jenkins sold the rights to a Christian film company, Cloud Ten Pictures.
The resulting trilogy of independent movies, staring Kirk Cameron, were panned by most mainstream critics, though they did well enough on DVD with Christian audiences. The films only made it as far as the first quarter of the third book. The last movie, “Left Behind: World at War,” was released in 2005. After the final book, Kingdom Come, was published in 2007, it seemed that the Left Behind story was finished. But then, last fall, movie trades began reporting on rumors and then confirmed plans to reboot the story with a bigger budget and more mainstream Hollywood cast.
A website for the movie, which begins shooting this spring, lists Chad Michael Murray, Ashley Tisdale, and Nicolas Cage as starring in the film (though all media reports about Cage’s involvement continue to describe him as being “in talks”). The project gained more buzz last month when a poster was released online featuring Cage.
According to Paul Lalonde, CEO of Stoney Lake Entertainment, “We couldn’t do the first film justice because not only were we trying to do too much, we were trying to do it with too little money.” Lalonde added, “We wanted to make a theatrical movie, we wanted to make it with A-list actors.”
Lalonde confirms that the new film will focus on the opening plot of Left Behind, which is centered around the Rapture, a prophesized moment that kicks off the apocalypse in the Bible when true believers are taken into a heaven. For Lalonde, this focus on the Rapture can allow for a more character-driven story to better connect with audiences. “Since this movie represents the start of what is going to be a franchise, we have been very careful to give the characters sufficient depth so that people will really get to know them and love them and want to follow them as the story continues,” he explained.
It’s a sentiment that Jenkins, as not only the story’s original co-author but also the owner of his own filmmaking company, agrees with. “Film is a different medium and much has to be condensed and telescoped,” he said. “This new picture, focusing largely on what happens in the first few hours after the rapture, can get away with fewer such expensive propositions.”
But it’s not the satisfaction of the story’s co-creator the filmmakers need to concern themselves with (Jenkins admits his only involvement in the new film is being able to read the script and getting an invite to visit the set); rather, it’s the series’ dedicated fan base who have voiced concerns that the project may be “too Hollywood.” It’s something Lalonde is adamant won’t happen. “We have not sold this script to Hollywood and said, ‘Make whatever movie you would like with it,’” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “That’s why we’re making it ourselves; so that we can ensure we can bring a Hollywood-level production without losing the spirit of the message.”
For his part, Jenkins isn’t too worried about the effect of a costlier production and big-name cast. In fact, he thinks it might be a positive. “The attachment of noisy names like Nic Cage and Ashley Tisdale should be a good thing, and my hope is that the picture can really compete in the secular marketplace,” he said, adding that the new film will “likely be controversial, but the better it is the more effective it will be in drawing people to the message.” And that’s the point of it all, for Jenkins and for Lalonde. It’s always been about spreading the message to people, alerting them to a real danger they believe in by using a fictional story.
“We want more people to learn how they can keep from being left behind,” explained Jenkins. “Hearing stories of people who have come to faith or come back to their faith or back to reading their Bibles and going to church are so much more meaningful to us than bestseller lists and royalty checks, as nice as those things are.”