Welcome back readers to “Based on the Novel By,” a new series devoted to the many horror films and series based on previously published novels and short stories excluding the works of Stephen King. (I love the King, but he’s been adapted so much. It’s just nice to talk about someone else for a change.) This week, we’re diving into I am Legend by the incomparable Richard Matheson.
Read on for more about I am Legend, and tell us your favorite adaptation down in the comments below!
Who is Richard Matheson?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked! Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, producing a vast array of short stories, novels/novellas, and scripts. The Twilight Zone series featured 16 tales by the author including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Little Girl Lost,” and “The Invaders.”
You might not know his name, but you most certainly know his work. He’s an author who will most definitely turn up in the series again.
I Am Legend, the Novella
Published in 1954, Matheson’s novel is a bit of a hybrid, blending survivalist horror with ideas that would become standard tropes in both the zombie and vampire genres.
The story centers on Robert Neville who, so far as he knows, is the last remaining human being alive. The rest of the world’s population has been decimated by a pandemic. Those who did not die have become vampires of sorts that seem, for all intents and purposes, to follow the known “rules:” living entirely in the dark, feeding on human blood, repelled by garlic and crucifixes.
Neville spends his days in solitude, gathering supplies, surviving, and killing as many of the creatures as he can in hopes of surviving. At night, he barricades himself inside his house as the creatures surround his home, entreating and taunting him to leave the safety of his home.
Then, late one afternoon, he spies a young woman who seems “normal.” He brings her home and asks her permission to look at her blood, to see if she is immune to the ravages of the contagion that has transformed the rest of the world.
I won’t tell you the rest. I’ll only say that the finale of the book is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read, and though the novella has problems in pacing, and in following through on some of its brilliant ideas, it remains one of my favorites.
From Page to Screen
Many filmmakers have credited I am Legend for inspiring their own work. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was undeniably influenced by the story. The novella has been directly adapted three times to varying degrees.
The Last Man on Earth
The first of these adaptations was The Last Man on Earth, released in 1964 and starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan–the only time in three adaptations that the character’s name was changed. Of the three, this is by far the most faithful to Matheson’s original novel, though after a series of changes he asked that his name be changed in the credits to Logan Swanson.
Price takes to the role beautifully. He is entirely believable in his solitude, and the loneliness and depression that is a daily reminder of his predicament. What I love most, however, is that this adaptation seems to capture the feel and atmosphere of the story more than the others, especially where the ending is concerned.
It is an imperfect film adapted from an imperfect book, but it still carries an emotional impact that would be lacking in the next adaptation.
The Omega Man
Ugh, not my favorite adaptation ever, mostly because the director and writers seemed more worried about letting Charlton Heston be a badass than they were about…well, anything else. They removed most of the vampiric qualities from the “vampires,” renaming them The Family and having them act almost like a religious cult.
Gone is the subtlety of Matheson’s treatise on humanity and the other. Instead we have Heston posturing, shirtless whenever possible, firing a gun so often it’s almost comical, and playing the alpha male instead of the “omega man” of the title. They did manage to shake things up a bit by casting the incomparable Rosalind Cash as Heston’s love interest in the film. It was a risky move in the 70s for an interracial couple to appear onscreen.
Don’t worry, though. Heston manages to even flub that with one of the most one-sided love scenes I’ve ever seen on film.
The film is worth seeing if you want to see all the various adaptations of Matheson’s work, but for me, it’s a rent-it-only title.
I am Legend
This is, most likely, the one you’re most familiar with. Released in 2007 and starring Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville, the film seems to draw upon both the original novel and the Omega Man film.
Again, there were quite a number of changes from the source material. The virus that wiped out humanity was born from experiments intended to eradicate cancer. Instead of intelligent vampire-like beings, the antagonists are feral, monstrous beings that attack en masse.
Still, this version does manage more of the emotional beats of the source material than The Omega Man. It tugs at the heartstrings even as it packs on the pulse-pounding action. One of the more marked differences comes in this film’s ending, however, though I won’t discuss that to avoid spoilers. It is still an emotional moment, but it changes the center of that emotion.