By Michael de la Merced
The official box-office winner last weekend was a slick cinematic translation of a splatter-fest video game classic, but the most widely distributed movie debuted not within neon-signed multiplexes, but in venues of a decidedly more sacred nature.
Oh, sorry. This isn’t that kind of news story.
Yet that’s all a reader would garner — if he was lucky enough to live in Washington, St. Petersburg, Fla., Columbus, Ohio or the six other cities the papers of which bothered to cover the premiere of Left Behind: World at War. The third film translation of the multimillion-selling evangelical novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which opened on 3,200 screens—versus 3,044 screens for Doom, the mainstream box-office winner—received scant write-ups in the media. Even now, a search of The New York Times’ Web site reveals a small plot summary of the movie. But that is all.
And most of the coverage the film did receive approached it from a business perspective, without examining how accurately the film corresponded to its intended audience’s views of the Christian rapture and its aftermath. As others have argued, mainstream publications often seek to portray anything dealing with faith in terms they’re comfortable with: sociology, politics, or in this case, economics. Hence, the emphasis on screen numbers and on a burgeoning Christian alternative distribution pipeline.
(For those just tuning in: the Left Behind series presents a literalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation. The rapture suddenly transports the devout to heaven. A European, and therefore unshakeably secular, antichrist rises to lead the U.N. and creates a one-world government that confiscates guns and persecutes Christians. And a small band of determined Christians forms what one of them dubs the Tribulation Force to fight in the name of Christ until the Messiah returns to Earth in all attendant glory, bringing about the end of time.)
The most insightful piece of the bunch comes from The Washington Post, which focuses most of the story on the success that Christian movies targeting churches have achieved. Alan Cooperman moves beyond the Variety-like fixation on the box office numbers of the Left Behind series and the ur-Christian blockbuster thus far, The Passion of the Christ, to examine the reactions and the effects this movie and this approach have on faithful moviegoers. That analysis, however, is contained to five grafs:
Among evangelical Christians, the marketing rush often excites conflicting emotions: pride and excitement about the burgeoning Christian marketplace and how it might influence the wider culture, combined with anxiety about the commercialization of religion and how Hollywood might corrupt unwary churches.
“With 330,000 churches in America, it’s potentially the largest distribution network in the country and probably in the world,” said A. Larry Ross, president of a Dallas public relations and marketing firm with many evangelical Christian clients. “But most pastors are all about changing lives, so they’re going to be resistant if it’s a product that does not have an evangelistic message.”
Peter and Paul Lalonde, the brothers who produced all three of the Left Behind movies, say their primary goal is to save souls, not to make money.
“I tell everyone, the most important 10 minutes of this movie is not on film. It’s when the pastor gets up afterwards and shares the gospel with the people who are there and invites them to make a decision for Christ,” said Peter Lalonde, an evangelical Christian whose own conversion occurred 22 years ago after seeing a Billy Graham film, “The Prodigal.”
But while “I have my religious reasons” for releasing the film in churches, he added, “as a businessman, I also have reasons.”
Unfortunately, if you want to understand more about the movie — whether it follows the series or even any popular vision of evangelical eschatology, Cooperman’s piece won’t offer any help. And turning to the few other outlets that devoted more than a few column inches to the debut, such as the St. Petersburg Times or “The Today Show,” yields even less.
Not that there is a lack of material to discuss: reading Christian websites reveals at least hints of disagreement over Left Behind’s representation of the end times, but not much deeper discussion of the other elements of faith in the movie. Or even any significant attempt over the weekend to find out how target audiences liked the movie. (In my own reporting, most who saw it liked it, found it profound.)
This isn’t to say that the movie should be treated on equal cinematic footing as its more commercial brethren; the movie’s production values are on par with lesser B-movies, and as its creators admit, it is meant mostly for the DVD sales racks it hit Oct. 25. But when there is clearly a reason why Sony Pictures Home Entertainment distributed DVDs and projectors to churches nationwide for those unprecedented screenings, the press owes the general public a more thorough examination of this phenomenon. And an analysis that doesn’t read like a simplified Hollywood Reporter mash note to business interests.
Michael de la Merced is a writer in New York City.