In Rumaan Alam’s Kirkus-starred 2020 novel, Leave the World Behind, a family of white Brooklynites—middle-aged advertising exec Amanda, college professor Clay, and their teenage kids, Archie and Rose—rent a very nice house in the Hamptons for a vacation. After a few days of poolside R&R, an older, wealthy Black couple, George “G.H.” Washington and his wife, Ruth, arrive at the door. They explain that they own the house, and that they’ve returned there, instead of to their place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, because there’s been an unexplained blackout in the city. Things go downhill from there, as depicted in a new film adaptation, written and directed by Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, and Industry’s Myha’la. It premieres on Netflix on Dec. 8.
Amanda, who’s oblivious to her own casual racism, initially doubts that the Washingtons are “the sort to own such a beautiful house” and just wants them to leave. However, as the crisis deepens—a series of semi-garbled New York Times push notifications refer to a hurricane before cell service cuts out—the two families decide to stay in the house together until things return to normal. Predictably, things only get worse.
Along the way, the characters ruminate on how much they took for granted before everything went wrong. Amanda’s love of Starbucks, expensive “pebbly” mustard, and recycled coffee filters by If You Care (“She cared!” confirms the narrator) comes in for some too-easy, but still satisfying, mockery. She and Clay are quite well-off, by any measure—they’re renting a house in the Hamptons, after all—but like most well-off people, they consider themselves middle-class. Meanwhile, Alam’s portrayal of G.H.’s calm confidence offers sharp commentary on how some very wealthy people see the world: “George thought money could explain what was happening to them, and that time would tell if money would save them from it.”
However, the book’s main theme seems to be that we all need to stop being so self-involved and suspicious of one another if we are to survive.Few would disagree with this, but it’s hardly a new insight; it’s something of a stock theme of postapocalyptic fiction. The AMC show The Walking Dead, for instance, is basically 11 seasons of characters learning this lesson over and over again, punctuated by bloody zombie fights. Zombies aren’t the threat in Leave the World Behind, though; mainly, it’s uncertainty. Cut off from media and from other people—it’s the off-season out on Long Island, after all—the characters can only theorize about what might be happening elsewhere. The omniscient third-person narration gives readers a few glimpses of chaos in other places, but there’s no explanation for the occasional blasts of ear-splitting noise that the characters hear, or why wild animals are acting so strangely, or why one person’s teeth just start falling out. This not-knowing is the most terrifying thing of all, and the most effective part of the novel.
The movie version, though, just can’t let the mystery be. By the end, Esmail spins up an ordinary conspiracy theory that wouldn’t have been out of place on the USA Network show Mr. Robot, which he created, or the Prime Video series Homecoming, which he co-directed. It works okay, but it’s unnecessary, as are the numerous other elements that he wedges into the story: A ship crash! Car crashes! A stampede! It sometimes feels as if bits of a blockbuster disaster movie were spliced into My Dinner with André.
In its quieter, conversational scenes, the whole cast shines; Ali and Roberts, in particular, play off each other well. However, Esmail can’t resist other questionable changes. For instance, Ruth is no longer G.H.’s 63-year-old wife; now she’s his 20-something daughter, whom teen Archie creepily ogles in public and graphically fantasizes about in private. Perhaps the only change that truly adds something is young Rose’s preoccupation with the sitcom Friends, as it results in a clever reiteration of the story’s central theme: I’ll be there for you, ’cause you’re there for me, too.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.