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Julia Roberts’ Apocalyptic Netflix Movie ‘Leave the World Behind’: Controversial Changes, Weird Ending

Based on the best-selling book by Rumaan Alam, the movie has some dramatic differences

spinner image Myha’la Herrold, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke and Julia Roberts star in the Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."
(Left to right) Myha’la Herrold as Ruth, Mahershala Ali as G.H., Ethan Hawke as Clay and Julia Roberts as Amanda in "Leave the World Behind."
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Leave the World Behind began as a best-selling, well-crafted 2020 novel of psychological suspense by Rumaan Alam. Now it’s a film written and directed by Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot, Homecoming) in limited release in theaters and on Netflix Dec. 8. It comes with an impressive cast — Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold have the leading roles — and Barack and Michelle Obama are among its executive producers.

But fans of the novel, a National Book Award finalist, will find some marked changes in Esmail’s adaptation. He didn’t want to be handcuffed to the source material. “I’m not a fan of making a carbon copy of the book,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “What I wanted was to create this stand-alone piece so that you could read the book and you could watch the movie and one wouldn’t spoil the other — that there were sort of two separate pieces and two different interpretations of the same story.”

Here’s what to know before you watch.

Warning: Big spoilers ahead!

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What’s the book about?

spinner image Ethan Hawke and Julia Roberts sitting at a table in The Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."
Ethan Hawke (left) and Julia Roberts
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Alam’s story is centered on a white couple from Brooklyn, Amanda and Clay Sandford, and their two teenagers, Archie and Rose, who are vacationing in a beautifully appointed Airbnb home rental (with a white picket fence, no less) in a quiet area of Long Island when they receive a late-night knock on the door. It’s the home’s owners, a wealthy, older African American couple, Ruth and gray-haired G.H. Washington (G stands for George), seeking refuge following a blackout in New York City. Alas, there’s no cellphone or internet service, so Amanda and Clay can’t confirm their story, although it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right in the world.

G.H. and Ruth end up staying in their home’s basement suite, and their interactions with the Sanfords are layered with some racial tension, most markedly in the form of Amanda’s suspicions that the pair are not the actual homeowners (“Maybe he’s the handyman and she’s the housekeeper”). There’s a bit of class tension as well (the Washingtons live on Park Avenue; the less well-to-do Sanfords are Brooklynites). But the book is most concerned with the increasingly bizarre, seriously scary happenings — crazy weather; horrible, glass-cracking-loud noises; a flock of flamingos in the backyard — that hint at the beginnings of an undefined but potentially world-ending calamity.

So how is the movie different?

spinner image Myha’la Herrold and Mahershala Ali in a scene from the Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."
Myha’la Herrold (left) and Mahershala Ali

In the movie, Ruth (Herrold) is the prickly, self-righteous 20-something daughter of G.H. (Oscar winner Ali, 49), not his wife. His wife, Maya (the name of their daughter in the book), whom we never meet, is an art dealer on a work trip in Morocco. Both G.H. and Ruth are worried because she’s due to fly home, but they can’t contact her while the world falls apart and planes are crashing on the beach.

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And in an unnerving scene in both the book and movie, Archie comes down with a mysterious illness and begins to lose his teeth. G.H. drives Archie and Clay (Hawke, 53) to the home of his contractor, Danny, hoping the man can help in some way. In the book, Danny is presented as a Range Rover-driving conservative who sends them home, no help offered or to be had. In the film, Danny (Kevin Bacon, 65) is a scruffy-looking, pickup-truck-driving doomsday prepper, and they pay him $1,000 in cash for pills (antibiotics?) for Archie.

The film also makes it clear that there’s been a crippling cyberattack against the U.S., and shows New York City being bombed. In the novel, the reasons for the frightening events are less defined.

The most striking differences are scenes added to the film. Among them:

spinner image Farrah Mackenzie, Julia Roberts, Charlie Evans and Ethan Hawke running on the beach as an oil tanker approaches in the Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."

• In the book, Amanda and Clay take their kids to the beach after they’ve settled into the rental. The day is uneventful — although there’s definite tension in the air — until the internet and everything else begins to break down that evening. In the film, an eye-poppingly massive oil tanker plows onto the beach (its navigation system has apparently been hacked) and nearly crushes the terrified family.

spinner image Mahershala Ali and Julia Roberts in a scene from the Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."
(Left to right) Mahershala Ali and Julia Roberts
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

• The movie includes awkward sexual tension between Amanda (Oscar winner Roberts, 56) and G.H. that doesn’t exist in the book. In one scene, Amanda (an extremely angry, unlikable character, even more so than in the book) and G.H. get drunk and dance, arms around each other. “I’m married,” Amanda tells him. “You have a wife.” Because … Hollywood?

• The family, attempting to leave Long Island (they don’t do so in the book), comes upon a massive backup of driverless white Teslas, all crashed into one another — apparently their systems have gone haywire and the cars are now driving themselves (thanks, Elon!). As more cars race toward the pileup, Clay manages to speed back to the house, dodging Teslas, without being hit.

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What’s up with the ending?

spinner image Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie standing in the woods in the Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."
(Left to right) Charlie Evans as Archie and Farrah Mackenzie as Rose in "Leave the World Behind."

It’s not terrible. But it’s kind of weird. Rose wanders through the woods to a large, empty home, where she gorges on junk food, then enters the basement to find a fully stocked disaster shelter, with a wall of videos — including Friends. She puts on the show, the opening song starts up and she smiles contentedly. Cut. Credits roll. Wait, what?

Yes, in the book she enters an empty house, but it’s a normal house, with a DVD player and TV. She plays Friends — “the episode where Ross fantasized about Princess Leia” — and “the sound of the television made her feel so much better.” But the novel goes on to describe her emotions: a feeling of resignation, almost, that disaster is imminent and neither she nor the adults around her understand it.

Is the movie good?

Some people seem to think so. The film currently has an audience rating of 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. And The Washington Post describes it as a “satisfyingly suspenseful apocalyptic thriller.” But others (me, for example) might find it comically bad compared to the novel, which is gripping, not just — or even mostly — due to the plot but thanks to Alam’s lyrical writing. Particularly cringey in the movie are the CGI-created scenes, including the aforementioned oil tanker running aground and an extremely fake-looking herd of deer that corner Ruth and Amanda in the woods. The Hollywood Reporter calls it “a problematic picture” and finds “something a bit stale in its portrait of racial suspicion and environmental catastrophe.”

But the film makes effective use of jarring music and dizzying camera angles to add to the feeling of unease, and the cast is exceptionally good. If you are torn between reading and watching, though? There’s no contest.

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