Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.
Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.
In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.
In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.
Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …
For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”
At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.
And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …
But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.
As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.
Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.