Not long ago, I posted on Facebook that Chrissy and I had watched the film, I Am Legend starring Will Smith. I asked Chrissy what she thought of the movie and she said she liked it. As happens from time to time, I get responses from my fellow Sci-Fi fans. One friend that I have a great deal of respect for, Rick (host of two of my favorite podcasts, Starbase 66 and Ray Guns and Go Go Boots) chimed in and said that I should have her read the original novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and then see what she thinks. Well, I took this as a challenge to me and decided that it was about time I read the novel. I have heard from many people that the Will Smith film was nowhere near as good as the book and had missed the point entirely.
As I was reading online about the film and the novel, I discovered that there were two other films that were also based on Matheson's novel. So on to Amazon I went and ordered the novel and the other two movies; The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man.
Since then, I have read the novel and watched all three movies and would like to share my thoughts on my experience.
Robert Neville seems to be the only living person in Los Angeles. Owing to dust storms and mosquitoes that carry a disease (the result of a war that included the use of biological weapons), everyone else has either died or have been turned into “vampires” that attack anything living, or even each other. The vampires only come out at night, are repelled by mirrors, wreaths of garlic, and crosses, and Neville takes it upon himself to rid the world of them, or at least his part of the world so he can live in peace.
By day, Neville goes about the business of gathering things he needs to continue living and the grim task of killing and disposing of the bodies of the infected by driving wooden stakes into the hearts of those that would kill him. By night, he barely holds on to his sanity by listening to loud music, drinking, and trying to ignore the taunts of the monsters that would kill him and make him like them.
By teaching himself science, he learns to separate the myth from the facts that cause the insanity of the vampires and he attempts to discover a cure, but nothing seems to work.
As Neville goes about his business, he finds a woman wandering around in the daylight and becomes very excited that he has found someone else who was immune to the bacteria as he is. He sees, after three years of surviving alone, an opportunity for some companionship. Unfortunately, this is not to be because Ruth turns out to be a spy for a group of vampires that were not dead when they were infected. They are not insane like the resurrected stalkers that taunt Neville in the night, and they have come up with a medicine that will allow them to start a new society.
For a moment, Neville feels that there is hope that he might be able to be a part of this new society, but thanks to his daily activity, he has not only dispatched the “dead” vampires, he has also killed many of the “living” vampires, including Ruth’s husband. So the new society sees Neville as the monster. He has become the superstition, the legend that needs to be removed before the new society can continue.
I really enjoyed this book. Almost as soon as I started reading it, I thought “this sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone,” and why wouldn’t I, since Richard Matheson wrote sixteen episodes for that series, two of those were teleplays based on his short stories. But that isn’t the only reason I enjoyed it, I loved the style of Matheson’s writing here. I could see the pictures that he was describing in my mind as I read the story. The descriptions of the things he put on paper were quite vivid, but not overly wordy. Many times, descriptions of scenes in books tend to be too long and overly detailed, but in I Am Legend, there is more left to the imagination of the reader, and the action moves ahead at a comfortable pace.
While Matheson uses the term “vampires” to refer to his characters, as one reads we learn that he is not talking about vampires in the Dracula sense of the word. Matheson’s vampires are more zombies than anything because they are not motivated by taking the blood of others as much as trying to get at him to kill him to perhaps assimilate him into their ranks. Some of the vampires in this story are resurrected dead being reanimated by the bacteria that keep them moving while dead. The vampires that eventually take over are the ones that are still alive, and have developed a medicine that keeps the bacteria from killing them while they appear to evolve into a new kind of human. The living vampires are able to think, procreate, have meaningful relationships, and tolerate sunlight for short periods of time.
Very little time is devoted to the reasons for what has happened. I found myself wondering about the war that brought this situation about. Who was fighting with whom? Why did the war start? Who developed the biological agent that was so virulent that it could be transmitted by wind and infect so many people. As I read the story, these details were not important to the story. Perhaps other authors would have found it necessary to fill in those blanks, but this was not about a war as much as it was a character study of a survivor.
In the end, it seems that the message of the story is what is important. While we have a great deal of sympathy for the protagonist because of how he lost his family and his way of life, and he is so desperate for companionship, and is bent on survival that I found myself rooting for him at every page turn, but then there is the plot twist. While the bacteria swept humanity away, room was being made for another type of humanity. Neville went from being our hero to being seen as the monster, a legendary figure that went about killing people in their sleep. When one mentions the word vampire, people do not think about the bats that prey on unsuspecting animals and people in Central and South America, rather we call up images of Count Dracula, a sinister, blood craving monster who attacks young women in their sleep to enslave them. But, with Neville finally in the minority roaming through Los Angeles killing with purpose and impunity, becomes the monster, the Legend.
Since the publication of the novel, there have been three feature films that are based on Matheson’s story. One of the three is very close to what Matheson’s intentions were, and two which are very loosely based on I Am Legend.
This film, an Italian production starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, opens with several scenes of a devastated city devoid of any signs of life. Morgan goes about life moving through the city section by section killing as many vampires as he can and locking himself away in his home at night. He uses mirrors and wreaths of garlic to help protect himself from a friend who appears to lead a number of vampires that try to break into his house and kill him all night.
Not long into the film, there is an extensive history depicting how he lost his family and friend to the plague. He stops by on his way to work to pick up his friend, Cortman to go into the lab where he and other scientists are looking for a cure to the plague. Cortman has become paranoid and refuses to leave his house and when Morgan arrives at the lab, he and the director are the only two there. After leaving instructions that his wife not call a doctor to treat their infected daughter, Morgan arrives him to find a truck leaving the neighborhood and he learns that she has been taken away to be burned in a huge pit. When his wife eventually succumbs to the plague, he takes her out and buries her in a shallow grave only to have her return as one of the vampires.
Morgan, desperate for companionship sees a dog and tries to befriend it. While chasing the animal, he finds that there are many vampires that have been staked to the ground with metal spears. He begins to wonder if he is actually alone. When the dog returns to his house, he is able to take it in and treats it’s wounds only to find that it is also infected. He takes the dog out to be buried. As he places the final spades of soil on the poor animal, he spots a woman wandering aimlessly. When he calls to her, she bolts and he gives chase, finally catching her and convincing her that he means her no harm.
Morgan soon learns that she is infected and decides to treat her with a blood transfusion, which seems to work, but she has actually been sent to spy on him and deliver information to others of her group of living vampires that are using a drug that keeps the plague in check and allows them to remain human. Learning that Morgan isn’t the monster they thought he was, she warns him that her fellow people of the “new society” are coming after him and will kill him. She advises Morgan to escape while he can, but he refuses telling her that they can use his, and her blood to cure others.
But the others are not interested because the legend of Morgan has caused them so much fright, they chase him into a church where he is killed.
Of the films that were made, this is the one that comes closest to the Matheson novel. I also learned that Matheson himself had written the screenplay, but with some of the changes that were made to the script, he insisted that he not be credited as the film’s writer except under the pen name Logan Swanson. I think that this might be due, at least in part to the somewhat long section of the plot that is devoted to the flashbacks to the loss of his family. The back story was not as extensive in the book. It seems that the filmmaker was making an attempt to create sympathy beyond what was intended, giving Morgan (Neville) a motivation beyond that of simple survival and trying to find a cure for the vampires.
The film itself does stand up as what I would consider a good ‘B’ movie, entertaining to watch and engaging in the plot. For the most part, Vincent Price turns in a good performance. I especially liked that it was shot in Black and White which added much to the mood of the piece. I would recommend this as a fun popcorn movie to watch later in the evening. For me, the most disturbing scene was when Morgan’s wife appeared at their home following her resurrection.
Robert Neville is once again under siege in this second film starring Charlton Heston. Only this time, Neville is a U.S. Army Colonel that is also a medical doctor. Thanks to a war between China and Russia, a plague is released that infects people on a global basis. Neville gains an immunity thanks to a serum that was developed in his lab. Apparently, he was the only one that achieved an immunity and he goes about the business of killing members of a cult of albinos that call themselves the Family. The members of the Family have a low tolerance to light and have lost the pigment in their skin. Neville has few worries while he lives in an apartment building that he has fortified. He has all of the luxuries that he could want, except for companionship.
One day, while in a department store looking for clothing, he sees a woman. He tries to pursue her, but she disappears and Neville dismisses the incident as a hallucination. Later, he is captured by the Family and put on trial. The leader of the Family, Matthias, sentences him to death for heresy. It appears that the Family is opposed to technology and anything else that the old world has to offer. Just before he is burned at the stake in a stadium, the woman he saw, Lisa and a former medical student named Dutch Intervenes and helps him escape.
Lisa and Dutch are part of a small group of people who are being spared from becoming mutants, but will eventually succumb. Neville learns that Lisa's brother is infected and he helps to try cure him.
One evening, due to being distracted by events in curing Lisa's brother, and because of Lisa herself, the generator that supplies Neville's apartment with electricity runs out of fuel and the lights go out. The Family takes advantage of this situation and sends a member with a spear up to kill Neville. While Neville tries to restart the Generator, the cult member draws bead on Lisa, but Neville arrives back in his apartment in time to shoot and kill the intruder.
Soon, Lisa's brother, Richie as cured and recovering proving that Neville was successful at recreating the serum that made him immune to the plague. Richie takes it on himself to approach Mattias to explain that there is a cure for everyone, but Matthias refuses to believe that Neville would be willing to help the cult and kills Richie. When Neville finds Ritchie, he goes on a rampage against the Family.
Meanwhile, Lisa changes into a mutant and betrays Neville giving the Family access to his apartment. When Neville arrives home, he watches from the street as Matthias orders Neville's apartment burned. Neville raises a weapon to shoot Matthias, but it jams, and Neville is hit in the chest with a spear thrown by another member of the Family. Neville falls, mortally wounded into a fountain, but before he dies, he hands a flask full of the serum to Dutch, who gathers the rest of his group and flees to the mountains.
When I watched this last week, it was the first time I had seen it. It is most definitely a product of its time in the 1970's and as a science fiction/horror movie, is virtually unwatchable by today's standards. This film, while it has a few similarities to the novel by Matheson, there aren't enough to come even close to the spirit of the book. Of the three films, this one is the farthest from what was intended by the author, who had nothing to do with it.
Heston's performance is overdone, as it usually is, and instead of winding up as the legendary monster who is to be eliminated by the new society, he comes off as a more Christ-like figure, as he is also wont to do in many other films he stars in (such as Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green).
This film misses the mark by so much that I can only wonder if the filmmakers even bothered to read Matheson's I Am Legend; I certainly do have my doubts.
Will Smith stars in this film that is set in New York as opposed to Los Angeles. He is Robert Neville, a virologist in the Army. The virus in this film was intended to be a cure for cancer that accidentally began killing people or turning them into Darkseekers. The Darkseekers hide inside buildings by day to avoid exposure to ultraviolet light, which kills them. The foe in this film is very aggressive and have greatly enhanced abilities such as strength and speed.
Neville lives in a virtual fortress that looks like a normal apartment by day, but when he prepares for the night, all exposure to the outside world is locked off. The Darkseekers do not know his location. In his basement, he has set up an elaborate lab where he tests possible cures on rats and Darkseekers.
In a brief flashback scene, Manhattan is being evacuated. Neville sends his wife and daughter away on a helicopter, which crashes. Neville elected to stay behind to work on a cure for the plague.
As Neville moves around the city during the day, he is accompanied by his companion, a German shepherd named Sam. He also makes daily broadcasts seeking any other survivors on a shortwave radio.
While working in his lab, Neville discovers a promising treatment that is derived from his own blood, so he sets about capturing a Darkseeker to test it. He secures a female specimen, but unfortunately, his treatment doesn't work. The next day, Neville is accidentally snared in a trap set by the Darkseekers. He manages to free himself from the trap, but it is after dark and he and Sam are attacked by Darkseeker dogs and people. Both escape, but Sam is bitten and becomes infected. Neville is forced to kill Sam.
The next night, Neville is incensed by the loss of his only companion and in a fit of suicidal rage, ventures out and attacks a large group of Darkseekers. Neville is nearly killed, but is rescued by a pair of immune survivors who heard his calls on his shortwave set. They take him back to his apartment where he is treated. The survivors tell him about a camp in Vermont where other survivors are located. Unknown to Neville and the woman, Darkseekers have followed them back to Neville's home and now know his location.
As Neville administers another treatment to the Darkseeker he has been using as a test subject, his home is attacked and defenses breached by the Darkseekers. Neville and the survivors retreat into the basement lab where they seal themselves in with the test subject where Neville learns that his treatment is successful. He takes a vial of blood from the subject, gives it to the survivors and sends them out the coal chute. When a Darkseeker breaks into the part of the lab where Neville is, he detonates a grenade killing himself and his attackers.
The survivors drive to Vermont and in the final scene of the movie, they enter the survivor camp with the blood sample.
I will mention that there is also an alternative ending in which Neville also survives to reach the Vermont camp.
Once again, the entire point of the Matheson story is completely missed with this version, and I think that it was a bit presumptuous of the filmmakers to use the title of the book as the title for the film. It is misleading and would tend to make one think that this would be a more accurate accounting of the original story. I think that this one item angered a lot of people who went to the theater or rented the movie expecting to finally see Matheson's story played out on the screen.
But I am not saying that it was a bad movie, quite the contrary. I loved this film when I first saw it in the theater and still do (please keep in mind that I went into the theater with no expectations and hadn't read Matheson's I Am Legend until just a couple of weeks ago).
Will Smith turns in one of the best performances of his career as far as I am concerned and showed his depth as a great, but underrated actor. He is very convincing and shows many facets of all of what a great actor is capable of. There are a few brief moments of humor, some moments of a man who is going over the edge for the lack of human companionship, a very poignant moment of deep loss when Sam becomes infected, and some "edge of your seat" moments of horror when the Darkseekers attack. The visual effects are well done and I especially loved the scene at the beginning of the film when Neville and Sam are hunting a deer, the streets are overgrown with weeds and an escaped lion gets the deer he is stalking.
When I decided to do this comparative study, I thought I would also ask anyone interested to comment on Facebook. I received responses from three people who had some interesting things to say.
My son, Benjamin said:
“The only movie I can say anything about is the I Am Legend one. Haven't seen any of the rest of them. Not really true to the book.
“As far as Matheson's point? What I took away from it is no matter how certain we are that we are right, we may be the monster. In every war, someone has to be the bad guy, right? It's always the other guy. A person could never realize, in any situation, that their cause is not righteous until it's too late.
“Even knowing it's 'based on,' I still love the movie. It's too bad it's always "the book was better," or "it wasn't like the book." Kind of unfair comparing the two mediums. When I want to think and use my brain, I read a book. When I want a story to move me emotionally with images, and music, I look for a movie. Not to say that these are mutually exclusive in any way. But that's just how I operate.”
Dayton Ward, a great author in his own right said:
“I absolutely love the novel. It's one of my all time favorite books.
“I think the first movie is the most faithful adaptation so far as the basic premise, etc. Smith's version is actually pretty decent in the early going, before the whole thing starts to come off the rails.
“And Heston's version is just...well, it was the 70s.”
Joseph Fuller, Facebook friend and fellow sci-fi fan submitted this:
1. "Faithful to the idea, yes.
2. "Matheson’s main/ ultimate point, in my opinion at least, nature can’t be controlled by man no matter how hard they try.
3. "First off, when I saw the trailer and the first thing that popped in my head was they have remade “I AM LEGEND”. Either it is a “good” film is truly up to the person viewing it. Did I think it was a good movie, no and here is my reasoning? It depended heavy on its visuals. They seemed to me to want to shock the viewer with the sheer scale of the emptiness.
"This now my opinion of the three movies are as follows:
"THE LAST MAN ON EARTH : it’s screenplay was written by the author under another name.
The overall premise I think was closer the book.( I Haven’t read the book.) there are parts I wondered if anyone was actually thinking of what they were filming."
Thanks to those of you that responded.
My conclusions are as follows:
None of the three films are faithful to Matheson’s idea, however The Last Man On Earth does come the closest to being an accurate screen depiction of the book. Where that one deviates is in the realization by Morgan (Neville) that he has become the legend that he has fought against for so long. He fails to see that while he believes he is right in what he is doing, killing the “vampires,” he has become the monster that he feared for so long. Morgan’s final words as he falls at the end of the film are “you are all freaks.” As to the other two films, they are very very loosely based on the book, as is the case in many films that are based on written stories. I am okay with that for the most part, but the title I Am Legend is the representation of what the Neville character realizes as he faces his death, and it should be the central point of a film that is made to accurately represent the story.
The Omega Man would seem to be more of a film that is showcasing Heston than anything else. Maybe an attempt to cash in on his success in Planet of the Apes. It is more of a campy version that sets up Neville as a savior figure than anything else. He makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life to save humanity as we know it while opposing the cult that rejects everything that is considered normal. Once again, the main character never realizes what he has become in the eyes of those that oppose him.
The 2007 film starring Will Smith would appear to be a mashup of the previous two films. While I think it is a good movie, I also think that, since the filmmakers missed the point, they should have perhaps given the film a different title, or just called it a remake of the first film.
Well, there it is…