Happy Halloween everyone! Now that we’re in the most wonderful time of the year it’s time to start getting spooky. And, just like last year, I’ve decided it’s high time to get a Film Library together, and to dive back into the depth of horror. I did some digging around, trying to find the best novel to tackle this year, and I think I did a pretty good job. Because today we’re going to be talking about Richard Matheson’s landmark novella I Am Legend and all three films that it’s been adapted into. That’s right, three! And, unlike the last time I tackled a novel that had been adapted more than once, All the King’s Men, each of these adaptations are very different from the novel. And, to make matters better, they’re almost all really fun stories! Bonus!
Richard Matheson is an author that I’ve been meaning to get into for a while now. He’s written several novels and short stories that have been adapted into some very famous films and television shows, including The Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and What Dreams May Come, and is a pretty large figure in the world of genre literature. He specialized in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, and the work of his that may be most famous is one of his earliest novels, I Am Legend. It’s a rather important work, being as it’s widely considered to be one of the primary inspirations for George Romero when he created Night of the Living Dead and basically invented the modern version of the zombie film. But, when you get to novels this influential, and that spawned this many adaptations, there’s always a bit of a gamble. Because it really could be a fantastic read that deserves the praise it’s gotten, or it could be a shockingly mediocre tale that people just used as a baseline to create something more memorable. And, luckily, this novel is mostly in that first category.
I Am Legend tells the tale of Robert Neville, a man who is struggling to survive the streets of Los Angeles after a devastating plague has wiped out most of humanity. The novel doesn’t really get into the hows or whys of the plague, other than kind of hinting that it may have been a result of a world war. But none of that matters. None of the past really matters. What does matter is that Neville is the last uninfected human being in the city, and possibly the world. Everyone else is either dead, or has become something else. Neville has decided that these people are vampires, because they’re unable to exist in sunlight, have an allergy to garlic, and some of them have aversions to mirrors and crosses. They lack any major intelligence, and spend most of their nights roaming the streets, and throwing stuff at Neville’s house. And why this animosity towards Neville? Well, he believes it’s partly because he’s the only living person in town and they want to feast on him, but it’s also because Neville spends most of his days walking around the city hammering stakes into the sleeping vampires. That’s really all Neville’s life is. He fixes his home, makes stakes, grows garlic, kills vampires, and then spends his nights reading, ignoring the vampires, drinking, and struggling to sleep.
Neville was just a regular man before the plague, a simple man who worked at a factory and lived an ordinary life with his wife. He has no idea why he’s immune to the plague, other than an idea that maybe he gained an immunity because he was bit by a vampire bat while in the Army, so during his time trapped inside his house he starts trying to come up with some reason for this plague. He begins researching, and builds the idea that the plague is a bacterial infection mixed with several psychological issues that make them think they’re vampires. Neville goes through his life, struggling to survive, until one day things change forever. Because while wandering around the wasteland of Los Angeles Neville finds something shocking. A woman. Neville chases after the woman, and brings her back to his house. Her name is Ruth, and she claims to be another survivor who has just coincidentally never encountered Neville before. But, as the two start spending time together, Neville realizes that this isn’t the truth. Ruth isn’t immune, she has the plague, she’s just part of a group of people who have managed partial immunity. They haven’t become mindless monsters, but they still can’t come out into the light. They’ve created a society, and there’s really only one thing standing in their way. Neville. Turns out Neville has been killing both mindless vampires and these new sentient ones without any discretion, and now they want to kill Neville and get rid of their bogeyman. Ruth leaves, and several months later the rest of Ruth’s people arrive, capture Neville, and bring him back to their new city, where he’s locked into a prison awaiting his execution, and it’s there he realizes what he’s become, this new society’s scariest legend.
“Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”
For being little more than a hundred and fifty pages this book is jam-packed with ideas, and for the most part they all work beautifully. I suppose the Matheson could have dived deeper into the past, telling us what really did cause the plague, and why it was unleashed on the world, but his Neville is a simple man who would have had no idea what was going on, and why the world would have fallen apart. That backstory would been extraneous, and it wouldn’t have been the story that Matheson was trying to tell. This wasn’t a story about a plague, it was a story about a man. Focusing on Neville and his slow decline into depression and paranoia is a very effective decision, and you really get a feeling of the hopelessness and dread that would come from being the last person on Earth. Robert Neville loses everything in his life, and has no idea how to fix things. Everything he does turns out to be wrong, and after spending what’s left of his life trying to figure things out, he realizes that everything he did was in vain, and he’d become a bigger monster than the beings he spent years killing.
THE FIRST FILM
Ten years after I Am Legend was released it was finally adapted into a film. It had a pretty rocky production history, which originally began as a proposed Hammer film. But apparently Hammer thought the idea was too bleak, and it eventually got punted around until eventually landing at a production company that decided to make it an American-Italian co-production, which isn’t necessarily a high sign of quality, especially from films from this era. But, they did get Vincent Price to be the protagonist, and Price’s inclusion in a horror film from the fifties and sixties certainly does give it a leg up for me. I just love Price so much, and this film gives him a chance to really shine, letting him carry the film as really the only character in the film. And that film that he carries is a shockingly close adaptation of Matheson’s novel, for better or for worse. I occasionally have a rough time with these Film Library projects when the films and the novels they’re based on are too similar and there’s not much to discuss. And it’s the Last Man on Earth that runs into this problem the most.
The Last Man on Earth is the story of a man named Dr. Robert Morgan, a scientist who has survived a horrible plague and is now the only living human being on the planet. He lives in an unnamed city, filmed in Italy, and is holed up in a modest suburban home that he has transformed into a veritable fortress. Morgan was a scientist when the plague started arriving, and while the people of the world were unsure of the exact origins of the plague, it was assumed to have been biological warfare. He and his coworkers began trying to find a cure for the plague, but none seemed to arise. And, finally, after months of research things got too dire to continue. Morgan’s coworkers died, his daughter dies, his wife dies, and Morgan is left alone. He turns his home into his base, and begins experimenting on the creatures the plague. Morgan finds that they seem to have similar rules as vampires, and heads out into the city to stake them as often as possible. This Morgan also believes that he’s immune to the plague due to being bitten by a bat, and from there he starts working on some sort of cure.
Since Morgan is a scientist he continues researching the plague, and eventually comes up with a serum to the plague, mostly based on his own immune blood. Which comes in handy when he finds stray dog, and begins experimenting on it too. Unfortunately he finds it too late, and the dog almost immediately dies from the plague, not being helped by the serum at all. But that disappointment is pretty quickly aided when Morgan is wandering around one day and comes across a woman named Ruth. She’s initially wary of Morgan, and he is very suspicious of her. He runs some tests, and ends up getting the truth out of her. She’s infected, but has a different type of infection as the vampires. She, and the people like her, are more sentient, and they have a vaccine they take regularly to ensure they don’t become like the others. The only problem is that she was sent here to distract Morgan so that the rest of her people can arrive and kill him. Morgan freaks out, and right on cue some soldiers arrive. They kill the vampires lurking around his home, and chase him through the streets of the city, until they corner him in a church. Morgan yells at them all, telling them that they’re starting this new society on violence and bloodshed, but they don’t really listen to him and stake him through the chest with a spear, just like he’d done to so many of their people without knowing it. The society then begins to rebuild after vanquishing their greatest monster.
Watching this film gave me that same feeling that I’ve had so many other times when getting ready to do a Film Library entry. Because this film is a shockingly accurate adaptation, taking the novel almost beat by beat, and even using some of the exact same dialogue. There’s really only two differences to this film from the novel. The fixation on the past while not really delivering any new information, and a slightly different ending. And, really, I think that that delve into the past was a big flaw of the movie. It’s basically exactly what I was glad that the novel didn’t do. By making Morgan a scientist, who knew what was going on and was actively trying to stop it when the world collapsed doesn’t really add much to this story. Because Neville the factory worker is in the exact same situation as Morgan the scientist. But the real issue I had with this film was that it just didn’t have great pacing. It was kind of a dull film, full of Vincent Price just wandering around while a voiceover told us what was happening. It wasn’t a particularly scary or interesting movie, and while it did feature a pretty great and tragic performance from Vincent Price, it just came across as a lifeless affair. It’s an interesting story, boringly told. Which is a real shame, because Vincent Price really does seem to be wanting to tell this story, even though it is a little hilarious that he’s strutting around the apocalypse with his finely trimmed mustache and immaculate suit. But I don’t think goofy is really the tone that this story wanted to hit.
THE SECOND FILM
So I’m just going to say this right now. None of the films based on I Am Legend are particularly good. All three have a lot of problems, but they have very different problems that keep them uniquely bad. However, there’s only one of them that I did find myself enjoying quite a bit, in spite of it’s objective quality. And that’s our second feature, The Omega Man. Who knows, maybe it’s because I have a nostalgic affinity for the movie due to it being parodied in a Treehouse of Horror episode of the Simpsons, or maybe because it’s the most assuredly insane of the three, whatever the reason, I really liked the Omega Man. But, despite that, I do have to admit that it is without a doubt the least like Matheson’s novel. You get the broad strokes of the novel, but overall this is just a fun little Charlton Heston dystopia-flick that’s an adaptation in name only. Well, not in name only, but you get what I mean. I couldn’t really find a reason for this film to exist, so I’m not quite sure what spurred them to remake this story. I assume it was just another in a long line of seventies dystopia sci-fi movies, especially because this director and Charlton Heston would team up again shortly to make Soylent Green. But whatever the reason, I’m damn glad they made it, because this movie is ridiculously fun.
The Omega Man is the story of Col. Robert Neville, an Army scientist who worked for the government creating viruses to use in warfare, and cures for said viruses. But when a war between Russia and China broke out, the world was suddenly overrun with a mysterious biological weapon, that is killing vast swaths of people. Neville has devised a prototype vaccine, but after his helicopter crashes with all but one vial being destroyed, he decides to use it on himself in the hopes that he can survive long enough to make more. This does not happen. Neville watches everyone around him die, only to find that some people don’t just die, they become some sort of mutants. There’s no vampires this go-around, instead the victims of the plague turn into light-hating albinos who wear black cloaks, aviators, and live underground while starting a cult known as the Family. The Family is run by a man who calls himself Matthias, and he takes a person affront to Neville’s continued existence. Matthias and the Family believe that the plague is a punishment for humanity’s fallen ways, and he preaches that they should all live a life of Orthodoxy, eschewing science and everything that ruined the old society. And their first step in doing so is to kill Robert Neville, the shining example of everything wrong with the old society. Unluckily for them though, Neville has turned his old apartment building into a fortress, and drives around the abandoned streets of Los Angeles all day in hot rods, machine gunning every person in a black cloak he finds.
Neville goes along like this for quite some time, watching movies by himself, stealing clothes and cars, and slowly going mad in his bachelor pad, until something odd happens. Because one day while shopping for clothes, he runs into a woman who seems to be normal. She runs at the sight of Neville, and he ends up losing her. And, probably because that threw him off his game, Neville becomes inattentive and gets caught by some members of the Family. He’s brought to their secret hideout, and Matthias holds a fake trial before sentencing Neville to death. The Family then drags Neville to Dodger’s Stadium where they plan of burning him at the stake, when suddenly the flood lights turn on, and blind everyone. Neville’s pretty confused about what’s going on, but a scrawny man named Dutch and the woman from earlier arrive, and save him. They hop on a waiting motorcycle and ride out of Dodger’s Stadium, and eventually head out of town into the countryside. Dutch and the woman, whose name is Lisa, take Neville to their hideout, where they live with a group of children who have been orphaned by the plague. Dutch was a medical student, and has been trying to keep people healthy, but Lisa’s brother Richie has begun to succumb to the plague, and they’re worried that he’ll soon turn into a mutant like the Family members. So they came to ask Neville for help, and found him about to be executed. And, luckily for them, Neville explains that he has the vaccine in his blood, and should be able to make a serum. As long as they take Richie back to his home, and the leave someone to assist him.
So Neville returns home, with Lisa and Richie, and they get to work creating a serum to save Richie from turning into an albino mutant. It’s a process that takes some time, and while they’re working on curing Richie, Neville and Lisa start to fall for each other. But this romance get pushed aside when they remember that there’s an army of Family member who are still laying siege to Neville’s apartment every night. They do manage to send a member inside one night, but Neville succeeds in killing him. Which is an uncomfortable time for Lisa to mention that she and Richie used to be part of the Family before they became mutants. But as Neville begins to deal with that knowledge they get distracted by Richie being cured. His plague signs vanish, and Neville realizes he’s finally done it. He’s devised a cure for the plague, and he’s ready to take it back to Dutch and the kids and then lead them all to a new life away from the city. However, Richie begins insisting that they also use the serum to save the Family members, figuring that they should do the right thing. But Neville has no interest in that, and tells Lisa and Richie to get ready so they can go back to Dutch and the kids the next morning. Lisa goes out to shop, and Neville goes to get some supplies. However, Richie decides to go talk to the Family, and is shocked to find them insane and hostile, and they murder Richie. Neville realizes what Richie must have done, and races off to stop them, only to find them missing. So he heads home only to find something horrible in his apartment. Lisa has succumbed to the plague and is now a mutant. Oh, and she let in the rest of the Family. They take Neville hostage and wreck his apartment, destroying all samples of the serum but one. Neville is able to escape though, and he flees from the apartment with Lisa in the hopes that he can cure her. But when he gets outside Matthias is able to huck a spear into Neville’s chest. The Family leave him for dead, but the next morning Dutch and the kids arrive and find that with his dying breath Neville kept the serum safe, giving Dutch the key he needs to cure himself and the kids, and possibly the world.
This film is sort of a mess. The tone is all over the place, and any grand ideas that Matheson’s novel had about becoming a monster and judging people by their appearance are thrown out the window in exchange for Charlton Heston gleefully machine-gunning weird mutants in cloaks. And yet, this movie was fun. It was dumb as a brick, but it was a blast. Heston’s performance is extremely hammy, but in a good way. And while the idea of taking the vampires from the novel and turning them into a race of conservative albinos is certainly strange, I think it worked for this movie. We spend a lot of time with the Family in this movie, and having them be a weird cult instead of just a race of horrible monsters who want nothing but to destroy was a fun idea. It also lets the film have plenty of weird “fight the man!” ideals that works with the time it came out in. The film’s politics are very muddled, what with Mr. NRA himself shooting these vaguely communist mutants, but that’s okay. The movie is just so quintessentially early 70’s, with a funky score, some serious blaxploitation vibes, and just a ridiculous disinterest in collateral damage. Seeing Heston’s Neville running around town, fighting the members of the Family and using his blood to save people is just a lot of fun. I mean, Charlton Heston rode a motorcycle through Dodger’s Stadium while lighting a bunch of cloaked mutants on fire. There’s not subtlety there, but it’s a hoot. This film is radically different from Matheson’s book, and really only shares the broadest strokes with it, but it’s still an enjoyably trashing little action flick, which makes it the most enjoyable of the three films I’ll be discussing today. If you haven’t seen this one, or only know it from the Treehouse of Horror episode, I highly recommend giving it a shot.
THE THIRD FILM
And now it’s time to discuss the third, and most recent, adaptation of Richard Matheson’s landmark novel. This 2007 Will Smith vehicle is probably the most widely known version of this story, if only because of its recency. And, unfortunately, I would probably say that it’s my least favorite of the bunch. It’s doesn’t have the accuracy of The Last Man on Earth nor the batshit craziness of the Omega Man. Instead it has a whole lot of blandness and studio interference. This remake was a long time coming, percolating for more than ten years with a whole bunch of crazy people attached. For a while this could have been a crazy Arnold Schwarzenegger movie directed by Ridley Scott, which certainly would have been something. But, things started to fall apart when renowned ruiner of good ideas, Akiva Goldsma got involved. And from there we got box office King Midas Will Smith involved, and the movie quickly became a studio commodity, trying to appeal to every conceivable demographic. And this resulted in quite a dull film, which I only saw in theaters to get a sneak peak of The Dark Knight.
I Am Legend tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville, an Army scientist who has been tasked with finding a cure for a horrible virus that has ravaged the world. What started as an attempt to cure cancer by genetically modifying the measles virus. This backfired drastically when a horrible plague started to spread, eventually killing off a majority of the population, while causing a large amount of people to become cannibalistic, light-sensitive, and feral monsters. Neville witnessed his wife and daughter die trying to flee New York after it was quarantined, and now lives his life as what appears to be the final living human being in the city. He lives in a brownstone with his own laboratory in the basement, seeking a cure in the hope that he can somehow save the world, despite it already seeming to have been lost. The monsters don’t seem to know where Neville lives, so he spends his days running tests, hunting deer, hanging out with his dog, and speaking to the army of mannequins that he has set up around the town to make himself feel less lonely.
Neville has found himself in a bit of a rut, just going through the same things day after day, until something bad happens. One day while he’s out hunting with his dog Sam, they come across a building infested with the monsters. Sam runs in without Neville, and he has no choice but to go in after her. They get attacked by several monsters, and though they escape it does give Neville an idea. The next day he sets up a trap, and manages to capture one of the female monsters and takes her home to experiment upon her. He tries several different possible vaccines, but none of them seem to work. And this disappointment makes him sloppy, because the next day while he and Sam are going around the town doing their rounds, they notice something odd. One of the mannequins that Neville talks to is out of place. Neville freaks out, and goes to investigate, only to be caught in a trap laid by the monsters. He’s then trapped until the sun starts to go down, and the beasts come out to attack him. Neville and Sam do manage to escape, but not before Sam gets bitten, and contracts the virus. Neville then has to put down Sam, and in the resulting fury he heads out into the night to kill as many of the monsters as he can. Which doesn’t go well. Neville crashes his car, and is about to be abducted by the monsters when he’s suddenly helped by a healthy woman.
Her name is Ana, and she is miraculously uninfected. She has a boy named Ethan with her, and the two have been struggling to survive for years, and have finally gotten a distress signal that Neville has been sending out. They save him from the monsters, and bring him back to his home. There Neville begins telling Ana about his research, and she tells him that they’re planning on heading north to a survivor colony in Vermont. Neville gets angry, telling her that there’s no such thing, and that she should give up on these ridiculous dreams. But, as they’re fighting, disaster strikes. Because despite the fact that Neville has kept himself hidden from the monsters for years, Ana was not as careful. They followed them home after Neville’s assault, and having finally found the home of their tormentor, they assault his house, and eventually gain entry. Neville, Ana, and Ethan head down into the basement laboratory where they find something shocking. Neville’s vaccine is finally working, and the female monster appears to be healing. And, after seeing that, Neville decides to put a little faith in the world, and gives Ana a sample of the vaccine, and then sacrifices himself by exploding a grenade that kills both Neville and the monsters. Ana and Ethan survive the blast, and they head north to the survivor’s colony, where Robert Neville becomes their legendary savior of humanity.
It had probably been since the theater that I’d seen this movie, and it really has gotten worse with age. This is a very bland film whose CGI monsters have aged incredibly poorly, and which relies almost entirely on the seemingly unending charisma of Will Smith. But it just doesn’t come together. And, in the end, I think the thing that remains most interesting about this film is the tumultuous history behind the film. Because, as you may have noticed, this film has the exact opposite moral of the novel it’s purportedly based on. Neville is the wise and wonderful savior of humanity in this film, and his murder of the monstrous creatures is entirely justified. Which isn’t how this film was supposed to be. Originally they had a very novel-accurate ending, with the monsters entering Neville’s home, but only to save the female. They aren’t aggressive, they’re just a primitive new species, and Neville is their monster, a man who comes and kills them and does horrible scientific experiments on them. They rescue their kidnapped brethren, Neville realizes he’s done horrible things, and he, Ana, and Ethan head off to start a life together. But when the film was test-screened, people didn’t care for it. It was a downer, and people didn’t want to see Will Smith as a monster. So the studio kowtowed to the lowest common denominator, and a film that had a chance to have an insightful ending just became an ugly and run of the mill film that had nothing special to it, and that became utterly forgettable.
When I first decided to pick Matheson’s I Am Legend as my next entry to this Film Library project, I was really hoping that each of these films would have enough things that were different about them to make things interesting. And I do think that this happened. These three films couldn’t be more different, and seeing how they scavenged the corpse of Matheson’s novel while oddly building on themselves was very interesting. But, when it gets right down to it, I think that Mahteson’s novel is the best version of this story. I highly recommend checking out Matheson’s I Am Legend, and at around 150 pages you could probably knock it out in an afternoon. It’s a tense and foreboding novel, showing us this last man alive, and seeing how his mind is falling apart. Robert Neville in the novel is a flawed and broken man, who grapples with his own failing mental faculties while struggling to find a purpose in his life. I think it’s very strange that in every single adaptation of this story they made Neville a scientist, somehow who was obsessed with the plague before it went bad, and now has built his whole life on curing it. Because that’s not the Neville of the novel. He wasn’t trying to cure the world, he was just an average man who wanted answers for himself, because if he didn’t have something to obsess over, besides indiscriminately killing vampires, he’d have nothing. He’d sit there, living out his life in a miserable solitude.
“Despite everything he had or might have (except, of course, another human being), life gave no promise of improvement or even of change. The way things shaped up, he would live out his life with no more than he already had. And how many years was that? Thirty, maybe forty if he didn’t drink himself to death. The thought of forty more years of living as he was made him shudder”
But, for some reason, every one of these adaptations took this fascinating character study, and seemed to fumble it. The Last Man on Earth is an obsessive adaptation, trying to perfectly adapt the surface level aspects of the novel, while not getting into any of the depth. We get a couple bits of Vincent Price’s Morgan’s inner monologue, but other than that, that film didn’t seem to care about his loneliness and madness. This version of Neville doesn’t kill that many vampires, and is mainly focused to finding the cure. He does become their monster, he does become their Legend, but overall the film just can’t capture the tense and absorbing feeling of the novel.
Then there’s The Omega Man. Listen, I don’t think I really need to dive more into how much I enjoyed this film, but I can’t argue that this is a good adaptation. This is a Neville who seems to be thoroughly enjoying his life as the last man on Earth, driving around in hot rods, shooting up mutants, and occasionally looking into a cure, more out of a casual curiosity than some deep passion for finding the truth. This Neville certainly does become the Legend of the Family, a horrible figure who brings nothing but death, but by making the Family equally horrible it kind of strips the weight from it. The Family were monsters too, and Neville seems proud to be their Legend. It isn’t a horrible realization, it’s his goal. And he’s our hero for doing that. So yeah, it misses the point, it doesn’t feel like it’s anything like the novel, but it’s still a fun movie.
Which is more than I can say about Will Smith’s I Am Legend. That movie is a goddamn mess. There’s a lot of problems with the film, such as not even bothering to make their zombie/vampire/monsters seem even remotely human, but the biggest sin that that film makes is it’s fixation on keeping Will Smith’s Neville a hero. He’s a noble scientist who has doomed his life in order to come up with a cure. He bravely sacrifices himself to get that cure out into the world, killing some of the unrepentant monsters, and he becomes a Legendary hero who saved mankind. The exact opposite moral of the novel. So, while this novel does hew closer to the novel than the Omega Man, it gets the moral so wrong that it becomes my least favorite of the bunch.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a terrific novella, and I highly recommend that anyone pick it up and give it a shot this Halloween. The Last Man on Earth is a dull and lifeless adaptation with a pretty decent Vincent Price performance, so if you’re a Price completest I would say it’s fine to check out. The Omega Man is batshit insane, I love it, and as long as you’re not going into it as a good adaptation of the novel, and instead want to just see some bonkers 70s sci-fi action, check it out. And I Am Legend sucks, so unless you somehow have a time machine and want to see the first scene of the Dark Knight, don’t bother.
I Am Legend was written by Richard Matheson, and published by Gold Medal Books, 1954.
The Last Man on Earth was written by Furio Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona, and William Leicester, directed by Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona, and released by American International Pictures, 1964.
The Omega Man was written by John William Corrington & Joyce H Corrington, directed by Boris Sagal, and released by Warner Bros., 1971.
I Am Legend was written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, directed by Francis Lawrence, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007.
Categories: Film Library