Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Classic Literature: I am Legend

A grim vision of the end of humanity, this is possibly the best way to describe "I am Legend". Written by Richard Matheson and published in 1954 the book has proven very influential, though perhaps not in the way one might imagine.

It is centred around the character Robert Neville, the lone survivor of a deadly plague which has spread through the world. As more and more succumbed to the plague the horrific truth is discovered, those who die do not remain dead, they return hungry for blood. They are little more than killing machines, some memory but not much in the way of faculty.

Neville survives though his sanity is sorely tested. At night he is holed up in his boarded up house, taunted by the dead, especially by Ben Cortman his former neighbour. During the day he hunts them down, searching for their hiding spots, despatching them.

As the novel progresses we are given a fascinating look into Neville’s mind. He does not understand why he is the only one who has survived, he misses his wife and child – both victims of the plague, he is lonely.

He is an ordinary man forced to face extraordinary circumstances. He researches, searching for answers and here, as in many other ways, the book shines. This is a bacterium infection, there is nothing supernatural about it. The deterrents against the vampires all have a base in science. The fact that Matheson uses science causes the horror of the book to blossom, there is a reasoning beyond the supernatural and that makes the story all too real.

Yet Neville is not alone, there are infected people who have not died , that have learned to control the condition and who are rebuilding society. Yet many of these none-dead have been killed by Neville as he has hunted the dead, not knowing that they are living survivors. He meets Ruth, who manages to convince him that she escaped infection also. She is there only to spy on him, the man who murdered her husband, yet she develops feelings for him and, as he discovers that she is infected, tries to warn him of the danger.

In the end Neville is captured and the true genius of the book is revealed, for it is not the vampires who are the monsters, for they are now the norm. It is Neville who is the monster, for he is the only one who does not carry the infection, it is Neville who is the Legend.

The book has spawned two direct movie adaptations, the first being the marvellous “the Last Man on Earth” (1964) starring Vincent Price. This is the closest adaptation so far and, beyond anything else, has the voice of Price used to great effect during the many voiceovers through the film. Sometimes it is accused of not being a vampire movie, I disagree. The film carries the elements that Matheson put in his novel well and makes a definite distinction between the shambling dead vampires and the well-functioning live vampires. “The Last Man on Earth” is public domain and available for free download from the archive.

The other obvious adaptation was “The Omega Man” (1971). This is certainly not a vampire movie, being a mutant movie. That said, in its turn it did inspire “The Homega Man”, from a Simpson’s Halloween special.

However, one of the biggest influences that the book has had is on another genre altogether. George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) owes a huge debt to “I am Legend”. Though Romero used zombies, with their taste for flesh rather than blood and their ability to walk in daylight, the influence of the novel shines through. Of course this film is the granddaddy of the zombie genre, and is itself available for download from the archive.

It is essential, also that I mention the graphic novel “I am Legend” by Steve Niles, illustrated by Elman Brown. This is a fantastic version of the novel, with stark pen and ink illustrations and is perfect to the source material.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

Obviously, since posting this we have had another adaptation. Please click here for my thoughts on the Will Smith vehicle.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the Vincent Price version last night and came to your site to see if you had this covered. Of course you did and then some extras. I saw it as a kid and did not remember much. I also recently saw The Omega Man (both will be a double feature post soon at my site) and both were great. The Omega Man seemed more dated with the cheesy 70's score and black people using words like honky, but The Last Man on earth really seemed pretty good. There were lots of Italian names in cast and crew and it did have a euro feel to it.

I simply disliked the Will Smith film. Not because of him, but the CGI monsters were ridiculous in my opinion. I found the the stumbling zombie/vampires in the Price film much scarier.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Bill, I haven't covered Omega Man as it is clearly not a vampire movie (despite being based on the book) but, as you will have been able to tell, I adore Last Man on Earth.

I didn't mind the cgi creatures in I am Legend - I was more concerned with the overt God/divinity overtones and the complete lack of regard for the actual book and the primary issues - the book is secular and Neville is the monster in the end, not some form of martyr or, worse, survivor.

hbrennan said...

The Will Smith version rates very little mention. My favorite is "The Last Man on Earth". Vincent Price truly shows the weariness associated with his day-to-day "routine". Plus, the (deserted) 1960's Italian locations look extremely creepy and barren.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi hbrennan, thanks for the comment. Lat Man is certainly my favourite version on film :)