I Am Legend – Richard Matheson (1954)


On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

I Am Legend (film)

I Am Legend (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia


The eagerly awaited adaptation of Richard Matheson‘s classic novella I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, appears to be taking the box office by storm. But is it a faithful adaptation? Unfortunately for those who love the original, it is not. In fact, I would say that the crimes committed in I Am Legend, especially with the changed ending, are even worse than the changes made to the (mostly faithful) The Mist.

The story, for those readers who do not know, is of the “last man on earth” trope. Everyone else has been infected by something that makes them behave like zombie-vampires. Neville, the last man, spends his days hunting down and killing the creatures, and holes up in his fortified house at night while the monsters congregate outside.

Some of the changes made for the Will Smith version are quite obvious and not so upsetting. The setting is moved from Los Angeles to New York City, which was quarantined during the outbreak of the virus that caused the whole mess, presumably by destroying every access to the city and creating a nice “locked room” claustrophobic aspect for the story. (But then how do Anna and Ethan make it onto the island? Not clear.) Events leading up to the apocalypse are more thoroughly explained, and Robert Neville’s character is now a scientist trying to come up with a cure rather than a straightforward survivor and vigilante. Treading on thin ice now, but still basically okay.

The problems come when the moviemakers meddle with the basic themes and plot points of the story. The most important of these is that the monsters — the infected people who now basically behave like vampires — are gradually shown to have more intelligence and social behavior than Neville guessed; in other words, they aren’t the monsters he assumed them to be. The movie also starts to make this point — the vampires clearly have a leader, communication and a goal: to rescue the female vampire that Neville is experimenting on — but Neville himself never catches on.

Yet the real joy and genius of this book is revealed in the ending’s ironic twist, which I won’t spoil here. In one moment, it dawns on both Neville and the reader what the reality of this new world is, and the full meaning of the title is revealed. This is the very reason why I love this book so much, and why it continues to hold a place in my permanent library. Yet the movie has completely discarded the ironic ending, electing instead for some pseudo “happily ever after” ending that not only rings false, but renders the title completely nonsensical.

I enjoyed I Am Legend for quite a long time into the film, which is probably why I was even more disappointed by its ultimate resolution. I particularly liked the scenes that showed how cracked Neville had become, as the only “normal” person in an eerily deserted (at least by day) New York City. Right about when Anna showed up is when it started to go sour for me. And my good feelings had definitely run out by the time the Hollywood ending rolled around.

For me, the original novella will remain far better than any of the three film adaptations. This is a case where Hollywood cannot seem to get it right.

If you liked this book, you might also like: Hell House by Richard Matheson; World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks; Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; The Passage by Justin Cronin; The Stand by Stephen King; Earth Abides by George R. Stewart; A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

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3 Responses to “I Am Legend – Richard Matheson (1954)”

  1. For a much more deeper analysis comparing novella to not 3, but its 4 movie versions, see the article in Book Vs. Film at the AV Club.

  2. And the AV Club adds an epitaph to this whole issue by evaluating the alternate ending from the not-yet-released DVD.

  3. 3 a man

    i have never read the book, but i have heard from those who have read it about the ending, and i like the irony, the twist in it, but they had to convert the ending for a major motion picture release, that ending wouldn’t have made sense for most viewers. they wouldn’t get the near comedic value in it

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