The Three Faces of I AM LEGEND
I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson has been an influence on writers and filmmakers since it appeared in the fifties, most notably on George Romero, who has acknowledged it as an influence on NIGH OF THE LIVING DEAD. There have been three official adaptations, but no version has captured the book faithfully. The book’s ending is particularly problematic for movie makers (spoilers ahead).
The novel is about an atomic war that leads to the release of a disease that turns everyone into a vampire, with the one exception being Robert Neville. Living in Los Angeles, Neville spends his days staking vampires where he finds them and his nights barricaded in his house. Neville meets a woman who may be a vampire, but may be a survivor. In the potent ending we learn that our hero is seen by some as the boogeyman of a new generation — he’s a legend.
In the sixties, Matheson wrote a screenplay for a UK production which didn’t happen due to censorship issues. The script ended up with Robert Lippert, an American producer, and since it was written by an excellent writer with screenwriting experience based on his own book, it was, of course, completely rewritten (Matheson’s pen name “Logan Swanson” is credited). The result was THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, in which our regular American hero is played by Vincent Price in Italy. Taken on its own, it’s not bad: The imagery of the burning pit, for example, echoes the cover art of one IAL paperback cover, and the slow-moving zombies do resemble Romero’s.
Yes, I wrote “zombies.” LMOE has Price staking the vampires he finds, including some who sleep in direct sunlight, which should’ve tipped him off to the existence of other folks who aren’t vampires, but they behave the way zombies do. Why are these vampire people acting like zombies? I dunno. It’s also confusing when the non-vampires/non-Vincent Price folks show up, in uniforms and vehicles — you’d think Price would’ve become aware of them before now, since they’d be out and about in the daylight. The ending has these new people killing Price, but it makes little sense in context, since they don’t care about any of that “legend” stuff, they just kill anyone who isn’t on their team. There is some affection for this version, but if you’re not a huge Vincent Price fan it just looks like a terrible version of a great novel.
Next up was THE OMEGA MAN, which Matheson denounced for being nothing like his novel. This time there is no mention of vampirism. Instead we get biological warfare which wipes everyone out, except for Charlton Heston, who injects himself with the cure he invented, with those infected by the plague becoming albinos in black robes.
OM reveals the mindset of producers and screenwriters of the early seventies when dealing with genre books when we see what has been emphasized and what has been ignored. The idea of the man becoming the new legend, the new monster, is sort of dealt with early on. The albinos consider him the last remaining member of the Old Ways, and he must be burned in the cleansing fire. The albinos could blow him away easily except they have prohibited the use of automatic weapons and technology (catapults being naturally-occurring items, I guess). So night after night they show up at Neville’s doorstep. Setting fire to the whole block doesn’t seem to occur to these people who set fire to things as a matter of course. The albinos are a spin on Charles Manson’s “Family,” see, following their leader, a former T.V. news anchor. (I’m not going to make the leap to our current president, because that’d be moronic, and I’m sick of seeing his name in every article on every topic I read these days.) This is how moviemakers tried to be “relevant,” you see. The novel’s Ruth is now a militant black chick, well-played by Rosalind Cash like she stepped out of a Pam Grier flick. She protects a group of kids who haven’t been infected by the plague, and Neville sees an opportunity to save the world, using his blood. The Christian symbolism climaxes with Neville in a Christ-like pose. While this gets a lot of crap from people, methinks thou protests too much, for one simple reason: It’s appropriate. When you’ve got a story about the world being saved by a man’s blood, such a choice is legit in a junky scifi/action movie. This ending seems to annoy a lot of people, but it’s in keeping with science fiction movies using mythical and religious imagery.
For a much-mocked SF action flick starring Charlton Heston, scourge of all that is good in the eyes of the left, OMEGA MAN is enjoyable on its own terms (here we go again — why can’t they just make a plain GOOD movie from this book?). The opening shots of a deserted L.A., the attempts to add a little spice with The Family and race relations, Ron Grainer’s theme, Cash’s performance, and the sheer arrogance Heston projects as the last Real Man in the world add up to an enjoyable flick.
But it sure ain’t the book.
The pre-Star Wars 70’s was not a time of appreciation for the history of horror and SF, even fairly recent history. So much of the book is ignored, starting with vampirism. Neville uses a machine gun, not wooden stakes, and blood is used as a carrier for the plague, not a source of food for the albinos, and as the source for the climactic symbolism. The ending is completely jettisoned, and with it the meaning of the title.
The same holds for the Will Smith version. I won’t rehash the plot again, but will just point out that this is actually one of Smith’s best performances. He is the only person on the screen for almost an hour, minus flashbacks. Living in New York, he and his dog don’t go around staking vampires, because they’re post-28 Days Later “infected,” people with makeup who were later given a layer of CGI frosting. They look it.
This version of the book is problematic in terms of following the book, but its great potential is kneecapped by several decisions. The use of CGI turns the darkwalkers or whatever they’re called here into cartoons, completely fake. Everyone loves doggies but Smith talks to the dog throughout the first hour, which de-emphasizes the crushing loneliness the character is experiencing. While the first encounter with the infected is suspenseful, the poor effects work lets so much tension dissipate. As soon as Neville is truly alone (if you didn’t predict that the dog was a goner, turn in your Movie Viewer-Basic Level card), he is quickly outfitted with a woman and The Kid, and the movie gets real dull as the adults bicker about God and a secret base where survivors are. See, Neville isn’t the only person still around. The ending is a big mess — WHY would he choose to off himself when he could survive? A look at a photo of his dead wife and kid tell us he just wants to go where they are and be united in whatever. For all the crap Omega Man gets for the self-sacrifice at its climax, it’s more interesting than another example of a movie needing to wrap it up with an emotional climax and going with suicide as the heroic way out. But Smith’s suicide is pointless — he’s not being shoved off a large piece of floating wood that could comfortably fit two, he’s just offing himself now that there’s someone who can get his cure to someone who can mass-produce it.
I AM LEGEND has endured three official film versions and no doubt will see more until someone decides a truly original approach: Making a version that reflects a love for the book and a desire to bring it to movie audiences in a somewhat accurate form.