It’s widely regarded as one of the most influential classics of science fiction. It’s been made into a movie three times, adapted for comics, and stolen from more times than it’s even worth counting, whether you consider the novels, comics, TV shows, or movies. The current zombie craze can trace its ancestry pretty directly to this book. Any measurement you use, it’s a seminal genre work.
So why is it so difficult to adapt it properly?
I am speaking, of course, of Richard Matheson’s “peculiarly PRACTICAL” (as Stephen King once put it) vampire novel, I Am Legend.
The book itself was published in 1956. Despite its horror trappings, it’s basically a science-fiction story — Robert Neville is the lone survivor of a plague that has turned the rest of humanity into vampires. He hunts them by day, they come after him at night. The book follows him as he tries to figure out the cause of the plague and keep himself alive…. and sane.
It’s a terrific book, but that is to be expected. Really, Richard Matheson ought to be declared some sort of national treasure at this point — in addition to I Am Legend, he also wrote The Shrinking Man, Hell House, Bid Time Return, Duel, Trilogy of Terror, and countless other gems. With all the genre classics he’s given us over his fifty-plus year career– not to mention the TV stuff like his classic episodes of Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and the original Night Stalker — as far as I’m concerned there’s no one better than Matheson working in the horror genre, and damned few to equal him.
I Am Legend may not be his best book, but it is my favorite. I don’t want to spoil it too much, even though many of you must have read it — but for me the novel’s great strength is the quiet role reversal that happens between Neville and the monsters he is fighting, to the point that Neville himself becomes a kind of monster. Most writers that try this sort of the-abyss-gazes-also character study tend to hit you over the head with it. Matheson paces it in such a way that the reader is swept along with Neville in his obsession, we’re rooting for him all the way to the end. Really, if all you know is the movies, you need to read the novel. I can’t recommend it enough.
I am also very fond of many of the adaptations that have been done, even if most all of them manage to miss the point, including this latest one that came out in theatres a couple of weeks ago. (Of course, one bonus of any new adaptation of a classic is that the original book gets re-issued, and it’s nice to have Legend back in print again.)
Now that the latest attempt at a movie has put the story back in the public consciousness, I thought it might be fun to look at the other movies and comics that have come from this book.
To begin with, there’s the first movie, the one with Vincent Price.
The Last Man on Earth, from 1964, is probably the best pure adaptation in terms of capturing the book’s atmosphere and the bleak isolation of the life Neville is leading, as well as the horror of watching the world fall apart a little at a time as the plague spirals out of control. Matheson himself worked on the screenplay, though he was dissatisfied with the final product and substituted a pen name, “Logan Swanson.”
There were a couple of changes from the novel; some worked, some didn’t. The smartest change, and one that has stuck for all the subsequent adaptations, was making Neville a biochemist actively working on a cure for the vampire plague. This adds a lot of plausibility to his researches and his relentless quest to wipe out the monsters and make everything right again. (Inexplicably, “Neville” is changed to “Morgan” in the movie, but I think of him as “Neville” and I will not confuse the issue by changing the name here.)
What goes overboard in this version, ironically, is a lot of the science. Perhaps the movie people thought it was too much exposition, though I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater there. The science adds to the horror, it brings a weight and a concrete reality to the vampire menace that isn’t there otherwise. It also adds punch to the notion that there is a new society evolving among the infected people, that they are learning to live with this horrifying change to their biology. Without that crucial piece of the story, you lose a lot of the impact. Remember that point, because we’ll be coming back to it.
There is a lot to like about this movie though. It’s dark and scary in a way that none of the other movie adaptations are, even with the state of the art CGI on display in the new one. Vincent Price is terrific as Neville, giving a subtle, bleakly naturalistic performance of a kind that you really don’t see him do in any other movie he ever worked in. The key to this story is believing in the day-to-day horror of the life Neville is leading, trudging through the ruined city looking for vampires to kill. And Price absolutely sells it, he completely pulls off Neville’s quiet despair; you’d never recognize him as the over-the-top guy who played Egghead or the abominable Dr. Phibes. There are a lot of black-and-white horror movies from the late 50’s and early 60’s that modern audiences laugh at today, but this is not one of them. It’s every bit as creepy today as when it was released. It’s fallen into the public domain, so you can find it on several different “Vincent Price Horror Classic!” bargain-bin DVD’s. Best $3.99 you’ll spend in the video store, especially since it’s often paired with The House on Haunted Hill, which is also a lot of fun.
The next adaptation, 1971’s The Omega Man, isn’t nearly as faithful to the novel but it certainly has merit.
I have to admit there’s not much horror to this version. And a lot of it looks terribly dated, especially for a supposedly post-apocalypse SF film; everything about it, from Rosalind Cash’s foxy black-power role as Lisa to Anthony Zerbe’s not-very-subtle Manson family references, screams “70’s social relevance fable.”
Nevertheless, I have a ridiculous love for this movie. It’s just so damn much fun. Charlton Heston as Neville is awesome — his wry, bitter sarcasm and sheer exasperation at the vampire mutant population is hysterical. Where Vincent Price was wistful and sad, Heston is mostly gritty and pissed off: Take your paws off me, you damn dirty mutants. He has dozens of terrific one-liners, especially in the early scenes where he snaps off one quip after another to the moldering corpses lying around Los Angeles.
It’s not JUST cheesy fun, though. The interesting thing about this version to me is that is IS so completely of its time. It ends up being a fable about the young versus the old, and it takes Matheson’s idea of the hero inadvertantly becoming the same as the monsters he fights one step further, by implying that it’s not just a product of horrific circumstance but actually an inevitable consequence of adulthood. The idea seems to be that sooner or later all grownups are forced into some kind of a monstrous compromise, settling for half a life; whether it’s Matthias and his book-burning technophobic mutants or Neville and his bunker mentality, it’s what happens when you let yourself get old and establishment, man. Innocence and goodness is the province of youth. (Only the adults are affected by the plague; it’s revealed about halfway through the movie that there are teenage survivors who are infected but don’t become monstrous until they become adults. Subtle, huh?)
If you spend too much time thinking about this sort of thing (I do) The Omega Man is actually the perfect bookend to 1973’s The Wicker Man.
Both of them are horror stories that are thinly disguised fables about the growing power of the youth movement. Both of them find the primary conflict built on youth versus adulthood, old versus new. Both of them are cult classics. But in The Omega Man the teenage hippies are the valiant survivors trying to save humanity from the ruined adults who can’t help being evil, while in The Wicker Man the heroic establishment grownup is pitted against young pagan hippies who can’t help being evil. If I were in college I’d write a learned paper on it. Since I’m not, it’s my gift to you film majors out there looking for a thesis idea. Enjoy.
…Wups, got a little sidetracked there. Anyway, there’s not a lot of Matheson’s I Am Legend in The Omega Man, but it’s still worth checking out. There’s a nice DVD issue with some interesting extras, including a making-of featurette that was shot at the same time as the film, and a retrospective with reminiscences from screenwriter Joyce Corrington and several of the supporting actors (who definitely aren’t teenagers any more.) And you might as well get the original Wicker Man while you’re at it.
Far and away the best adaptation of I Am Legend wasn’t in film at all — it’s a comic book. (I bet you were wondering if I was even going to mention comics this week at all.)
Eclipse Comics put out a really magnificent four-issue prestige format adaptation in the early 90’s, scripted by Steve Niles (whatever happened to him? You could see he had a real future in mutant zombie post-apocalypse comics…) and lush, beautifuilly-rendered art by Elman Brown. It pretty much is the novel, profusely illustrated, in the style of Berni Wrightson’s Frankenstein. This was my first exposure to Matheson’s original novel and I fell helplessly in love with it. Blessedly, it’s back in print in a nice collected edition from IDW.
It’s well worth your time even if you already have the novel on your shelf. I really don’t have much to say beyond that — Comics Should Be Good and this one is. So buy it.
Which brings me to the newest version.
I probably wouldn’t have found it such a disappointment if they hadn’t actually called it I Am Legend. That really does set up all sorts of expectations for those of us that loved the book. Of course, the mere fact that it stars Will Smith probably tells you everything you need to know about the big Hollywood dumbing-down process that’s going on here. Still, I had hopes that this version might be something more than a jumped-up videogame despite the trailers. But it’s not, not really.
The key mistake is that the infected, the vampire people, are just snarling animal mutants devoid of intelligence. So there’s no society of the mutants, no social metaphor or commentary to speak of going on here — this is just Will Smith shooting monsters. For all the cheesiness and dated sixties references in The Omega Man, at least they were reaching for something beyond that. This is mostly a CGI shoot-em-up, and even though it’s exquisitely crafted, it’s still a big dumb effects movie. Independence Day with vampires. Fine, I like big dumb movies as much as the next guy, but why bother with Matheson’s book at all if you just want a popcorn movie? It’s not like the novel has a big cachet outside us few geek faithful that remember it.
That said… it IS exquisitely crafted. The scenes of ruined New York are incredibly evocative and spooky; the visuals are the best that CGI technology has offered to date, I think. It’s a shame it’s attached to something so shallow. Smith is trying, you can see HE is reaching for something; but to be honest, Will Smith just isn’t believable to me as Robert Neville. You want to cast African-American, fine, get Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman — hell, even Avery Brooks — but not Will Smith. I just don’t buy it. He seems more out of place to me in this than he did in The Wild Wild West, and that’s saying something.
There is an interesting comics-related spinoff, though.
Vertigo has done a prequel book, I Am Legend: Awakening, that is presented online here, as part of Warner Bros. official movie web site. No word so far on whether or not DC is ever going to make a print version available.
It’s an interesting experiment. I’m ambivalent about online comics as a whole, I admit it — I prefer something in print, that I can hold in my hands — but this is lovely work, and almost all of the short stories in this prequel collection are weightier than the main story of the Will Smith movie. There are entries from Steve Niles (him again!) and Bill Sienkewicz, Dawn Thomas and Jason Chan, and even a story by Matheson’s son Richard Christian Matheson with art by David Levy. The project is endorsed by Matheson Senior himself, according to publicity at the 2007 San Diego Con, and the Niles/Sienkewicz entry was available there as a giveaway promo comic — dealers are moving quite a few of those on eBay, if you prefer a printed version as well. Or you could download the PDF version and print that out, I suppose — I confess, that’s what I did so I could get this column written. I guess I’m too old school.
Nevertheless, it opens a door to a possible new way of doing business for DC. And it’s nice to see that Richard Matheson (and son) are actively participating in the comics project. Admittedly, I wanted to like it better than I did — mostly I’d have to call it “okay but not great” — but it’s nice that it’s happening at all. There is a promised Book Two in the works and I’ll be curious to see what that looks like. But it’s not the real I Am Legend, at least not to me.
I do have hopes that someday I’ll get to see a faithful version of I Am Legend on the big screen, complete with scientific vampire biology and suburban ruins and the gentle, decent family man who eventually becomes a monster that terrifies a society of monsters. Someday. And in the meantime, we still have the novel. If the various adaptations lead folks there, that’s worth something.
See you next week.
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