Myha'la, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, and Julia Roberts stare at the tv screen in Leave The World Behind

How Faithful Is ‘Leave the World Behind’ to the Novel and Its Ending?

Leave The World Behind premiered on Netflix on December 8, 2023, and quickly reached the number one spot on the streamer. Sam Esmail adapted his film from the 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, so viewers are curious how closely the film and its ending follow the action of the book.

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Spoilers ahead!

Alam’s novel tells the story of two families stranded together in a luxury home after a mysterious event knocks out communications in the United States, possibly globally.

The threat is purposely vague

Characters don’t try to figure out what’s happening in the book, but in the movie, G.H. (Mahershala Ali) offers ideas about a potential “coup d’état” orchestrated by a foreign country. He attributes the loss of technology access, navigation system failures, radiation poisoning, anti-American propaganda distribution, and odd animal behavior to a three-step process aimed at “toppling a country’s government from within.”

Since building tension is different on film than on the page, the action happens faster in the movie. The Sandford family only hears about planes crashing and ships running aground in the book, whereas the film actually shows these things happening to them. The scene with the ship hitting the shore while the family picnics is exclusive to the movie, as is the scene where G.H. witnesses two separate plane crashes and realizes the scale of the disaster.

the family runs away from a ship running aground in Leave The world Behind
(Netflix)

The movie adds a Gen Z character

The novel version has G.H. and his wife Ruth turning up on the Sandfords’ doorstep. Throughout, they worry constantly about their adult daughter, Maya, and fear the worst has happened to her. In the movie, it’s G.H. and his daughter Ruth worrying about their wife and mother Maya, due to arrive home from a business trip the next day. This change allowed filmmakers to toy with generational differences and highlight Amanda Sandford’s (Julia Roberts) subtle racism. It also sparked more sexual tension between Ruth and Amanda’s husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and son Archie (Charlie Evans), as well as between Amanda and G.H.

The self-driving car scene is not in the book

In both versions, Clay attempts to find information in town, only to get lost without his GPS. In the book, the families don’t really leave the house very much until the end, when Archie’s illness forces them to seek help.

The film Sandford family tries to flee to New Jersey early on, only to (almost literally) run into a barricade of self driving Teslas whose navigation has gone haywire and caused a huge pileup on the highway. It’s an exciting scene that feels like a video game for a few moments, injecting much-needed action into the film.

The scene in the cabin was also added

The scene where Amanda and Ruth (Myha’la) find common ground while searching for Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) in a shack in the woods was not in the book, nor was the scene where the women work together to frighten off a herd of sinister deer.

Kevin Bacon as survivalist Danny in Leave The World Behind
(Netflix)

Kevin Bacon’s character has more empathy in the movie

G.H. and Clay go to the home of Danny (Bacon), a survivalist neighbor seen earlier stocking up on water and canned goods, and seek help for a sick Archie. In both book and movie, Danny and G.H. argue and they both pull guns on each other. The difference is that in the novel, Danny refuses to help them. In the movie, Clay’s impassioned speech about his ailing son tugs Danny’s heartstrings and he reluctantly trades cash for pills. He even points them towards a home he suspects has a secret bunker inside.

Finally … that ending

The Friends are not there for us in the book. In fact, the subplot of Rose bringing up Friends was invented for the movie.

The book ends with Rose finding a big house with a fully stocked pantry. She takes as many supplies as she can and heads back to her family, leaving the ending open for readers to interpret as they wish. As Alam told Variety, “… the book ends with a question mark.”

Movie Rose is a funny character, at once acutely tuned in to the dangers of the world and completely oblivious. She’s been binge-watching Friends throughout the movie, a screenwriting choice that illustrates her technology addiction, and she has just one episode left: the finale, entitled “The Last One.”

Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) stares at a threat off screen in Leave The World Behind
(Netflix)

Rose is obsessed with finishing the show, constantly asking her family to fix the television or repair the WiFi, not understanding this is now out of her parents’ control. Finally, she tells her mother she’s “tired of waiting” and disappears into the woods. Rose finds the big house with all the food, but instead of loading her arms with supplies and heading back to her family, she finds a DVD copy of Friends and sits down to watch the finale.

Alam, who also executive produced the movie, told Variety he loves Esmail’s ending. He claims neither he nor Esmail really know what happens at the end, calling it “a film that respects you as a viewer enough to not provide that.”

Leave the World Behind is now streaming on Netflix.

(featured image: Netflix)


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Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.