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Gretel at Apocalypse: A Review of Leave the World Behind

Mid-February sees the airing of the AARP (PBS, February 17th) and People’s Choice (NBC, Peacock and E!, February 18th) Awards.  Because Leave the World Behind is recognized by both bodies, now is a perfect time to rethink and review the film. Some of my friends claimed they were scared to death, while others insisted the movie lacked action. Every complaint about the ending was countered by a compliment. While some folks decried the soundtrack, others—including me—liked the garish, in-your-face opening that indicated just how myopic and closed-off were the Sandford family members. Everyone I know agreed that Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) is a horrible person, and I hope that Roberts gets formal recognition for allowing that bitchiness—so evident just below the surface in many movies, and bubbling to the top in My Best Friend’s Wedding and Ticket to Paradise--to overshadow her toothy-grinned, wide-eyed personae.

According to Katie Campione, the film was a Netflix “most-watched” selection for at least two weeks. (Deadline, 19 December 2023), and it has received a number of award nominations--from People’s Choice, CinEuphoria, and Set Decorators Society of America.  As I replay my friends’ comments and other reviews in my head, I wonder why the overall reception of this big-budget, all-star movie has been lukewarm and why interpretations are often diametrically opposed.

I believe the underlying problem in both reception and interpretation is structural and genric. In order to make an apocalyptic thriller, director Sam Esmail radically changed the focus and tone of the novel, so the original’s quiet dramatic study is altered into a mish-mash of striking sets and strife-filled scenes.

The novel never divulges the crisis; it describes piercing sounds and disrupted animal migrations; however, the movie embellishes the apocalyptic threat, pointing in at least three directions:  nuclear bombs, sound-waves, and cyber-assaults. Thus, the story-line is disrupted rather than driven by spectacle: an ocean-liner running aground, Tesla’s slamming into one another, planes crashing, drones dropping flyers, and mushroom clouds forming over New York City. To further the confusion, the film also introduces various culprits by noting that the dropped pamphlets are written in the languages of several different U.S. enemies and by proffering an explanation from G. H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) that the attack might be domestic terrorism and civil war.

It’s a lot, and together with the ominous scenes of frightened deer and flamingos, there is little time for the film to develop character or situation—the very heartbeat of the novel. In what little examination is offered, the film sensationalizes race and sex instead of exploring the dynamic of two families—unknown and unrelated to each other--facing the start of an apocalypse together. In the novel, that study is the story. It is as if the families get a head start on survival. They lose internet and television, but they retain electricity and running water. They are shielded from immediate panic and chaos by their affluent, rural location.

Elderly couple George and Ruth Washington (grandparents of out-of-state toddlers whom they will not be able to rejoin) reclaim their Air B&B and offer to continue to share their home. As they adjust to this arrangement, Ruth Washington compares the Sanford’s surprise at opening the door to them to a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinnermoment (84).  Ruth shares her educational journey (Barnard and Teachers College) as a ploy; the text emphasizes her strategy: she was “doing this routine because she wanted to understand these people a little better. It was a give-and-take” (82).

Ultimately, Ruth realizes, “You demanded answers, but the universe refused. Comfort and safety were just an illusion. Money meant nothing. All that meant anything was this—people, in the same place, together. This was what was left to them” (222). Ruth commits to that principle, as does her husband. Both help the younger couple with their teens, as mothers bond over Montessori and all parents connect over remembered family vacations.

Thus, the inter-racial dynamic in the novel is a slow examination, filled with self-reflection and some growth. Amanda constantly reflects on her level of politeness and appropriateness about both race and class (38, 52, 56, 82, 104, 144), and the families do reach a level of understanding surprising in such a short acquaintance as they bond over the return of the children from their first foray into the woods, “though they were strangers there was real joy at their reunion. Ruth had put an arm around the boy’s bare shoulders. G. H. had squeezed Amanda’s forearm in paternal relief” (132).

As the bonds between the adults strengthen, so does their honesty. At one point, Amanda asks Ruth to “’Say something to make me feel better’” (160). The older woman replies, “’I can’t do that. Comforting’” (161). The growth of trust is indeed a give and take that involves steps both backwards and forward, a dynamic most effectively expressed through the semantics of a later exchange: Ruth wonders “Why did this woman [Amanda] not understand that however unlucky they were, the were also lucky” (222)?  At this point Amanda realizes, “This woman [Ruth] was not a stranger at all; she was their salvation” (222). Paradoxically, in the moment that both characters recognize the fated and intimate nature of their relationship, they each refer to the other, not by name, but by common noun.

In contrast to the novel’s nuanced study, the film’s inter-racial interactions are sensationalized and stereotyped.  The claim by Ruth Scott (Myha'la) that adolescent Archie Sandford ( Charlie Evans) is attracted to her is irrefutable, but her charge that the teen’s father Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke) is also hitting on her seems unfounded at best—and wishful thinking at worst. The rapid pace of Amanda’s shift from aversive racism to aggressive attraction to G. H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) is similarly over-blown, although it is nice to see the actress display a sultry side—and an R & B groove.

*

No-one in the film is likable. The home-owner who made his money as a hedge-fund manager, G. H. (Ali), is a brainiac who stays in his head. Clay (Hawke) is a hen-pecked husband who is conflict-avoidant, most often obeying his wife instead of following his own (slightly) kinder instincts.  Daughter Ruth (Myha’la) is an entitled twenty-something, and the Sandford teens Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rosie (Farrah Mackenzie) are simply awkward.

It is in the teens’ awkwardness, however, the theme of both works can be traced.  If the bells and whistles and larger-than-life side effects were dropped,  the true gem of the film might be easier to see: here we have contemporary Gretel and Hansel dropped into a Long Island forest, taking the lead on foraging and finding a way to survive.

In the film, the originary impulse of Rosie’s action is Christian. Proclaiming she is tired of waiting for a sign, Rosie recites the parable of the man who drowns because--expecting a miracle to save him from the flood—he refuses rescue from two boats and a helicopter. Rosie then heads out to explore and finds the bunker that should indeed provide adequate food and shelter for the duration of whatever siege they face. The novel presents the archetypal sibling story as secular fairy tale: “They were babes in the woods, and if the tale were to be believed, they would die, the birds would see to their bodies, maybe escort their souls to heaven. It depended on which version of the story you knew” (111-112).

The bleakness of the original Grimm tale--one of survival during famine-- is amplified by the apocalyptic setting; and between what might be sound wave attacks and a tick bite, the novel alerts the reader that older brother Archie will not survive. The younger child’s exceptionality is stressed by the omniscient narrator: “Rose was a survivor and would survive. She knew by some instinct (maybe just the human connection), that she was in the minority” (236).

In both texts, the teens’ outings occur after a pivotal moment when Rose (in the novel)/Rosie (in the film) protests to her brother that no-one listens to her. In both texts he responds comfortingly, but in the film—in what may be its best scene-- his words echo with shocking and compassionate insight: “Probably not.” In the novel, the siblings’ first afternoon walk is significant because Rosie, the younger child, initiates the exploration: “’Let’s go in the woods, Archie.’ She thought about what she’d seen. It didn’t make sense, even to her. ‘I saw something this morning. Deer’” (107).  The novel also records Rose’s determination to “solve” the problem even though she believes her parents do not “take her seriously” (148 – 49).

As John Updike reviews Bruno Bettelheim’s masterful introduction to fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, he writes, “In ‘Hansel and Gretel’ the parental home on the edge of the forest and the gingerbread house in the heart of it are two aspects of the same place: ‘the gratifying one and the frustrating one’” (New York Times Book Review Section, 23 May 1976).

In light of both texts’ apocalyptic theme, the types of home one has (or desires) can perhaps be more usefully described as the unsustainable dwelling and the sustainable option. This eco-conscious angle deepens the texts’ examinations of the intersectionality of race, nationality, and class, as the two houses are introduced in reverse order: the ostentatious materialism of the first house is enjoyed by the owners and coveted by their guests, while the second house (through its store of supplies and basement bunker) symbolizes a more Spartan life-style and a survival refuge.

Tracing the fairy tale trope encourages viewers and readers alike to see we are in a time when our brave new world becomes ever more dangerous.  Both texts are didactic. They suggest that as the stuff of nightmares becomes ever more realized—in terms of implementation of technological advances and in displays of human cruelty—as we reach a crisis in human consciousness, we are all babes in a new forest in which it is hard to find facts and to forge a way. Rose/Rosie searches for a safe house and for a human solidarity that includes a human/natural world accord.

 Let’s hope the last-chance-scenario warnings implicit in both texts are longer-lasting and more helpful than breadcrumbs . . . .

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