“There were no psychiatrists left to murmur of groundless neuroses and auditory hallucinations. The last man in the world was irretrievably stuck with his delusions.”
That moment you realize how sharply the film deviates from the source material…
After a repeat viewing of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 remake with Will Smith, I think I can understand why. Richard Matheson’s sci-fi-horror elixir probably wasn’t a guaranteed sell for viewers drugged on action flicks and bowtie endings. Granted, there have been three big-screen (and one direct-to-video) adaptations of the novel which effectively jumpstarted the zombie genre circa 1954, so perhaps one of the earlier flicks conforms more closely. But it’s pretty clear the suits at Warner Bros. opted for a near-total rewrite of the novel. In attempt to maneuver a spoiler-free course, I can simply say that while the major set pieces and general mood are brought over intact, the actual events and, most memorably, the concluding act share almost no resemblance to the original inspiration.
I Am Legend is a slow-drip tale told through the lens of one sorrowed man as he copes with the distress of being surrounded by monsters while struggling to work out a scientific understanding of them. Beset by dwindling resources and small mistakes that carry deadly consequences, Robert Neville is a battered soul in a swelling storm. His pursuit of a cure for the plague is deterred not only by incessant self-doubt but by his equally strong desire for companionship, in whatever form. (Fans of the film will notice the dog is figured quite differently here.) As he endures mounting mental anguish punctuated by small triumphs, he is nudged ever closer to the edge of sanity. The growing presence of the creatures lurking just outside his fortified windows only serves to compound his totalizing sense of isolation.
Might there be other wandering souls calling up memories confined to an increasingly distant past? Might there be enough residual knowledge to chance upon a cure? Were he to succeed, would it even matter? Has everything worth caring for been lost? Matheson does a masterful job of dangling these questions in front of the reader by funneling them through Neville’s tormented consciousness. The rush of a finale is both abrupt and unnerving, neither of which can be said for that of the 2007 redux. Its distance from the film is reason alone to pick up the book.
Matheson’s novel also helped lay the groundwork for a diverse genre of zombie-infested horror. And indeed, many of the high profile franchises over the last half-century are but variations on Matheson’s theme. The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland–all share a literary and cultural ancestry with Matheson’s template of apocalyptic doom mixed with post-human bloodhunters.
Paperback buyers take note: A full half of the book is additional short stories by Matheson which have no connection whatsoever to I Am Legend lore. Nowhere on the front or back covers is this mentioned, so I simply assumed that the table of contents was a list of chapter titles. Needless to say, I was expecting a lot more novel. I’m not a big short story fan—not least because they are poorly arranged for wide-arc character development—and the ones included here are hit-or-miss, some of them pretty forgettable, with “Prey” being the notable exception.
Feature image via DVD Beaver