Adaptation: “I Am Legend”

Written by Nick Workman October 14, 2011

The Story

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend is a different take on the last man standing genre. While the protagonist Robert Neville is literally the only human left on Earth, he does live amongst former humans who are infected with a disease that give one the symptoms of a vampire. The novella follows Neville as he goes about his daily tasks of surviving in a world that is being overrun by hostile vampires. These survival tasks include finding food, hanging up garlic, and boarding up the broken windows of his house due to the vampires attacking every night. Throughout these tasks, we the reader, learn that Robert Neville is not so much a stoic, heroic man, but a broken man who has learned to deal with his isolation from humanity with alcohol and anger.

The vampires of the novella are intelligent beings who can hold conversations with Neville. They are also his former friends and neighbors. Neville is a constant witness of the new society that is being built up around him. Matheson shows that Neville’s anger comes from having to constantly witness his old society crumble as a new one emerges, one that he can never hope to be part of. This anger and realisation eventually emerge into an epiphany for Neville at the end of the novella, in which he laughs and proclaims the title of the story.

Matheson’s novella has a lot of interesting ideas about what the last man would do when a new society is emerging around him, one that will not accept him. The problem with the novella, and what holds it back, is that Matheson has set it in a bad horror universe, one that tries to scientifically explain vampires. The reason that Neville does not carry the disease is cheesy, and like the rest of the book, relies too heavily off of the vampire mythos. If Matheson had instead chosen to focus more on Neville wanting to be part of the new society in the latter half of the novella instead of focusing on the horror aspect, I feel that the novella would not come off as so linear and cardboard cut-out. None the less, the ending of the novella is a great and unique one in that it really does make this story a horror story. It leaves the reader with a state of anticipation wondering what will happen when the next stage of humanity emerges and how we will deal with them, and they deal with us.


The Adaptation



I Am Legend has been adapted into three films. The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. The focus of today’s article will be on the Will Smith adaptation.

Like the novella, the film I Am Legend follows the daily struggle of Robert Neville (Smith) as he survives in a world where humans are nearly extinct. Shifting the focus from L.A. to New York, we watch Neville as he tries to live in isolation with his only companion being a German Shepard and some mannequins. Right from the start of the film, it can be seen that director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich have a greater understanding of how to show Neville in isolation than Matheson. The switch from L.A. to New York makes for wonderful scenery. Being surrounding by skyscrapers for kilometres and the fact that Neville is stuck on an island really lends itself in allowing the audience feel that they are just as isolated as Neville. Along with the switch from scenery, the fact that for most of the film Neville’s only interact is with his dog and some mannequins that he gives personality shows just how desperate he is to keep his humanity, even if it means projecting it onto other creatures and inanimate objects. Smith does a wonderful job in his portrayal of Neville by playing the character casually in his interactions with the mannequins and dog.

The film takes the ideas of the vampires and tosses that aside. Instead the disease leaves one more like a hairless mutant. Though still intelligent, they are unable to communicate with Neville in language. I enjoyed that they left out the cheesy vampirism, but was a little taken aback at the CGI work of the film. I would have preferred if they put a little more thought, or had used traditional makeup, into the mutants instead of having them look like hairless, green men. They are however affective in the role they play. They are often cunning, and provide for a lot of great action.

Like the other film adaptations of I Am Legend, the ending is different. In this ending, we lose the epiphany that Neville has at the end of the novella. Instead, we are given a happier ending, one in which we know that there is hope in the survival of humanity. While the ending of the film works well, I preferred Matheson’s cynical ending because it is such a good ending, one that I feel leads to better discussions. The ending of I Am Legend is predictable and fits too well into the typical Hollywood ending. My hopes are that if a forth adaptation is made, it will combine the greatness of Smith’s portrayal, the direction of Francis Lawrence, and the well written isolation scenes with the much better ending of Matheson’s novella. Until then, this film is by far the best adaptation of a so-so novella that has a great ending. See the movie if you have a night to kill, and read the novella if you want to check out a great ending to a horror story.

(Now, there is an alternative ending to the movie, one that is closer to the ending of the novella. I have chosen not to review it because it is not the final product of the movie. If there is a director`s cut that includes this as the true ending, then the movie is elevated in rating from 6 out of 10 to 7 out of 10, but only slightly)

My Rating: 6/10

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About Nick Workman

Nick Workman: Co-host of Nerd Alert, editor of news, writer of reviews, and lover of all that involves imagination. If he is not on his computer working on We Eat Films or Nerd Alert, you can probably find him in a big comfy chair, sipping a cup of coffee, with his nose deep in a book.

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