I Am Legend: Why Can’t Matheson’s Masterpiece be Done Justice on Film?

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is a masterpiece of horror that has spawned three film adaptations, none of which have quite captured the essence of what makes this book so great. We take a look at why...

When I say that Richard Matheson’s 1954 classic sci-fi vampire apocalypse novel I Am Legend (given the Vampire Novel of the Century award in 2012 by the Horror Writers Association) deserves a faithful film adaptation, take it with a grain of salt–it’s one of my favorite books. Matheson’s masterpiece has been adapted from the page to the screen three times, or four, if you include the awful 2007 straight-to-DVD I Am Omega, produced by makeshift film studio The Asylum (I don’t). In 1964 it was adapted as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, in 1971 as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and the most well-known was 2007’s blockbuster I Am Legend starring Will Smith.

Matheson’s novel is not only a canonical work in the science fiction genre, but despite his 2010 induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, he doesn’t get the mainstream recognition he deserves. In a June 2013 article on RogerEbert.com entitled “The Mundane Uncanny: The Art of Richard Matheson, 1926-2013” Peter Sobczynski writes, “Richard Matheson…was a man who may not have had the instant name recognition of the likes of Spielberg or Stephen King or Ray Bradbury, but whose work…influenced anyone who encountered it, regardless of the medium he was working in.” That being said, I have a few reasons why his best work deserves a faithful film adaptation, maybe not now, but sometime in the future.

Cinema had its first crack at Matheson’s book with Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth. Matheson actually co-wrote an early script, but was embarrassed about the final product and chose to have his name changed in the credits. In a 2002 interview Matheson said he originally told the Writer’s Guild, “I don’t want my name on this.” He said that the script he submitted was changed so much in the making of the movie that he didn’t want to be attached to the project. “They said ‘you don’t get any residuals then.’ So with four children I wasn’t going to do that so I put Logan Swanson’s name on there, and he’s had his name attached to a couple of dogs.”

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I believe that The Last Man on Earth was the most faithful adaptation, though. It may not be the best film of the three, but I think it’s far better than Matheson believed it to be. The lonely and isolated setting of Matheson’s book comes through. The film also employs a great deal of voice-over work, and although this is often considered a cheap way to reveal information in film, it works here because Price’s character (Robert Morgan, instead of Matheson’s Robert Neville; why the change?) is believed to be the last man on Earth. Contrary to 1971’s The Omega Man, for the most part, it isn’t campy or ridiculous, and the score is aptly dramatic. Also, the monsters are reminiscent of Matheson’s, and the camera work is quality.  

There are problems, though. Price gives a sympathetic performance, but he is certainly no Neville, as Matheson said. “I was disappointed in The Last Man on Earth, even though they more or less followed my story,” Matheson said in an interview with Cemetery Dance magazine. “I think Vincent Price, whom I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast. I also felt the direction was kind of poor. I just didn’t care for it.” Matheson’s Robert Neville is in his mid-thirties, of English-German descent, a blonde hair, blue-eyed, tall and hulking man. Price was fifty-three at the time of shooting, his body had begun its later-years slouch, and he wasn’t nearly the physical presence that Matheson’s Neville is. The make-up and special effects were sadly crippled by the period in which the film was made. The monsters, while their look is evocative of Matheson’s, their actions are humorous and bumbling. Worst of all, Vincent Price has no chemistry with co-star Franca Bettoia (who plays evolved, and fully communicative vampire Ruth) and their onscreen dynamic is noticeably awkward.

Towards the end of the movie, there is a massive continuity issue—Price’s front door switches from being attached to the kitchen to the living room, and a vampire breaks in and attacks Ruth. Usually continuity issues are small, but when a magic jumping door is the catalyst of a film’s climax, it raises eyebrows. Seconds after the attack, Ruth’s evolved vampire hoard raids the house, shooting the less evolved vampires with guns. However, it has already been stated that bullets don’t kill vampires, yet they do here. The film was enjoyable for the first hour, and then with the introduction of Ruth’s character the last twenty minutes were progressively lazy, including the anticlimactic ending. In death, Price’s character calls the vampires “freaks” and in doing so, lacks the “dawn of a new era” self-aware finality that the book manages to pull off masterfully.

With 1971 came The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston as Robert Neville. With the recent popularity rise in post-apocalypse books and novels, The Omega Man has become a classic, which is dreadful seeing as there is almost nothing from Matheson’s novel in this movie. Matheson said of The Omega Man, “It was so far removed from my novel that it didn’t even bother me.” 

Some would call it campy, but I don’t believe there’s any self-awareness involved. The film portrays Neville as a dark comic, crashing his car early on and saying, “There’s never a cop around when you need one.” Ha-ha, there’s been an apocalypse, how droll. Matheson’s vampires are nowhere to be found here; instead we have low-budget albino mutant pyromaniacs who appear to be as human as Neville, save for the appearance and extreme aversion to light (Side note: how could nocturnal albino creatures that can’t stand the sight of light be obsessed with fire, a very basic light source?).

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Instead of the plague being caused by worldwide spread of bacteria, the screenwriter chose to make biological warfare between Russia and China the root of the issue—what a very 1971 Cold War tactic, eh? Neville is immune to the plague in this movie because he is a former colonel who was in a helicopter, a passenger travelling with an experimental vaccine, when the plague hits. When the pilot crashes, succumbing to the plague along with Neville, Neville scrambles on the ground for the vaccine and injects himself. This version of Neville is nowhere in Matheson’s book. He’s selfish beyond belief, only injecting himself and not the pilot, while Matheson’s Neville believes he is immune due to a run-in with a vampire bat, a situation out of his control. Above all things, Heston’s Neville is sardonic, constantly making pseudo-witty jokes that fall flat, and I just don’t believe that this is realistic for the last man on Earth. Price’s portrayal is much more believable, ranging from exasperated ironic laughing fits to despondent, desperate tears. Heston’s performance here isn’t his best.

Also, as in 2007’s I Am Legend, the end of the novel is changed drastically. The point of the novel is that Neville is the last of his kind and with the plague comes an evolution in the dominant beings of the planet. However, in The Omega Man, Heston’s Neville gives his life for humanity to have a chance, his blood being the hope for survival, which is not only a weaker ending, but it also has a misplaced religious connotation that was not Matheson’s intent.

The best part of the movie, and I mean that, was what is considered to be one of the first interracial on-screen kisses in American cinema between Charlton Heston and Rosalind Cash—though it wasn’t the first. The screenwriter of the film stated that this occurred because of the Black Power movement. In a 2005 article by Mel Valentine entitled “The Omega Man” he poses that the stereotypes of African-Americans in the movie were offensive then, as well as now, but weren’t taken to task due to the film’s campy nature: “The screenwriters attempt to give The Omega Man a then contemporary feel by including a controversial interracial romance…they couldn’t help but make Lisa a tough-talking ghetto chick straight out of a blaxploitation film, complete with Afro, stylish urban clothing (sometimes illogically changing from scene to scene), and a headstrong attitude to match.“ 

Not to mention, the leader of the infected refers to their group as “The Family”, another nod to the cultural fear of the time of Charles Manson. If you’re keeping score, this is the third major change made to Matheson’s plot for current event reasons, reasons that would resonate with the audience at the time. Let’s exploit every single fear of the average audience member! And finally, it seems that the only symptoms of the infected are minor rashes, albino complexion, white pupils, and aversion to light. It doesn’t seem like much of a “curse” does it?

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Last, but certainly not least, is the 2007 film I Am Legend (starring Will Smith) which grossed $585 million at the box office. Matheson said in 2002 of Smith’s then in-production-limbo film (which was once attached to Arnold Schwarzenegger), “They’re talking about making [an adaptation] now that’s even further removed from my book.” This version’s plague came from a cure for cancer gone wrong that ravaged the planet, killing most of humanity, and leaving a small percentage as zombie/vampire beings. I liked the idea of revealing the plague’s progression, and devastation on Neville in particular, through flashbacks, as also utilized in The Last Man on Earth. I also liked the faithful touch of Neville talking to inanimate objects in a serious way, unlike in The Omega Man where this plot point was a cosmic joke. Above all things, the chemistry between Will Smith and the dog that plays Sam is what makes this movie. The vampire/zombie hybrids move as Matheson describes them, but they are more zombie than vampire—they can’t speak or communicate (except in a far better alternate ending on the DVD). All in all, the story is interesting, the dog is adorable, and Smith’s wonderful acting is the best part of the movie. This is the most sympathetic film version of Neville, and the most like Matheson’s.

I take a lot of issue with I Am Legend though. As much as I love the dog, it feels exploitative seeing as her fate in the movie is so obvious from the start—when that dog shows up on screen, audiences think “Aww!” followed immediately by, “Crap, I bet it dies.” Not to mention Smith famously spoiled the dog’s death in press interviews leading up to the film’s release. In the beginning of the movie, we see that Neville has hundreds of books to read, but would rather spend his time working out; this is admissible, as he needs to survive against fierce predators, but Matheson’s Neville was a precocious reader, and was constantly searching for answers.

The monsters here are closer to Matheson’s than the other two films, but still too far from Matheson’s. In the book, the vampires can talk and they evolve into high-thinking beings. In this movie, they are Neolithic apes, sans the furry coats. Why include the characters Anna and Ethan? It’s a totally new storyline that slogs the movie down so much. Their characters draw attention away from martyr Smith, and they really have no purpose but to deliver Neville’s blood-cure to a camp that may or may not exist—his death then comes across as another overtly religious diversion from the book’s ending. Hell, the better ending was an alternate ending on the DVD extras. When one of the infected communicates with Neville, he realizes they aren’t so barbaric after slaughtering packs of them, and he survives/travels with Anna and Ethan to the camp. This alternate ending still isn’t good enough when taking into consideration the source material, but is certainly better than the theatrical. While the original ending is ridiculous (anyone else think Smith could have just climbed out behind Anna and Ethan?) this alternate cookie cutter, audience pandering ending takes the “legend” out of I Am Legend.

The whole purpose of the book, as the title alludes to, is that maybe the impending apocalypse is not a final end, but the provenance of a new species, while the past struggles to be remembered in the future. Neville is the last of his kind, a famed monster to a new race, a threat that needs to be extinguished for a new way of life to take place. This is something that has not yet been captured on film and it is, in my opinion at least, one of science fiction’s most intriguing questions: “When the world as we know it ends, what happens next?” I don’t know if it’s because filmmakers would have an issue making Matheson’s vampires sympathetic characters, or that the end of humanity is too heavy for viewers, but I believe Matheson’s original story is fantastic as it is. It has enough merit and structure to be told in a faithful film, and I hold out hope that one day it will be. Matheson said of his beloved novel in the 2002 interview, “People have tried over the years…to shoot it exactly the way I wrote it, but it’ll never happen. The closest anyone ever came was George Romero in Night of the Living Dead. I’ve had a lot of people say that they were inspired by [me] but that doesn’t put any money in my pocket,” before stifling a laugh. There are rumors of an I Am Legend prequel, so maybe—as is the case for Matheson’s post-apocalyptic version of Earth—not all hope is lost.   

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