The Successes & Failures In Adapting I AM LEGEND
Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend has been adapted to the screen three times- but have any of the cinematic adaptations effectively translated the source material? Zac Hestand finds out.
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, though not a massive success when first published, grew over time to be an influential piece of fiction. Stephen King considered this an important book in his development as a writer, and the use of a hero trapped indoors fending off the undead inspired George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead. What exactly is the appeal of this slim (my paperback copy is 170 pages long) novel? As a reader, it’s the novel’s genre balance and themes of loneliness that leave a lasting impression.
I Am Legend blends Science Fiction and Horror by allowing readers to dive into a futuristic world overrun by vampires. Vampires, and frequent jump scares, are the horror elements. With the future setting (well, Los Angeles of 1976) and the result of vampires is due to a disease pandemic, as the sci-fi element. Science is often used to explain the existence of and how to destroy vampires.
Protagonist Robert Neville is the last man standing. He spends his days coping with loneliness/isolation and fighting these vampires, led by former neighbor Ben Cortman, from entering in his well-protected home. In the end, Neville loses the good fight for survival. With all survivalist stories, a feature film is likely to get made.
The novel received three well-known adaptations with big stars such as Vincent Price in the first adaptation The Last Man on Earth, Charlton Heston in the second adaptation The Omega Man and Will Smith in the third, I Am Legend. With any page-to-screen adaptation, some onscreen elements keep with the source material, while others fail to capture what made the source great. The three films selected succeed and fail in various areas, but some were more successful in certain parts than others.
A Success: Loneliness
The three films, though different in quality, each succeed in capturing the loneliness of the protagonist. The novel chronicles Neville’s day-to-day routine, a rather mundane one, and what happens when both a dog and woman enter his life. The dog and the woman make some appearance in each film, but there are added elements to enhance Neville’s isolation from the life he once had.
The Last Man on Earth frequently has Price (called Morgan instead of Neville) do voice-overs to comment on his routines. The voice-overs border on him talking to himself. When not engaged with this, he regularly looks at film projections from his past, and the film flashbacks to life before the virus.
The Omega Man features mannequins on display in various abandoned locations. To deal with loneliness, Heston engages in conversation with them. He has done this for the last two years. When he sees a young woman in broad daylight, he assumes he’s hallucinating due to his isolation.
I Am Legend combines elements from the previous two films. Smith engages in conversation with mannequins like Heston, but where it succeeds the most is putting more focus on the dog. The Price version uses a dog as an attempt for companionship, but it is brief, as the dog is infected. The dog in the Smith version is onscreen longer and becomes his only friend and family. When the dog gets infected, you as a viewer feel Smith’s pain.
A Failure: The Infected
The Last Man on Earth comes closest in capturing how the vampires in the book are portrayed. They avoid the light, have a fear of garlic and are led by Cortman. They move in a zombie-like pace, but are able to speak and organize. While this succeeds, the failure of the other two eclipse its effort.
The vampires aren’t even vampires in The Omega Man. They’re albino mutants that avoid sunlight and belong to a Luddite cult called The Family (likely capitalizing on the cult/commune craze of the late 1960’s). They hate Heston not only because he’s human, but that he possesses technology. The horror element is absent, and the film gives us villains that lack any sort of scariness.
I Am Legend vampires are, well, just mindless monsters that don’t speak, run super fast and are not even people, just really weak CGI. The vampires have no distinct personality or mannerisms, but are only a dime-a-dozen pack of monsters that Smith shoots in the style of a video game. His run-ins with them eventually grows dull and lacks any sort of tension.
A Success: Home Safety
All three films have Neville/Morgan go through the city during the day, and back to his home at night. The monsters know where he lives, so he must do what he can to keep himself safe. Home safety is what the movies get right from the novel.
The Last Man on Earth has Morgan in a home with boarded up windows, doors and garlic cloves and mirrors (the vampires hate them) on his front door. The inside of his house contains a collection of wooden stakes, crosses and more garlic. Morgan took many steps to make sure he is safe.
I Am Legend and The Omega Man both have Neville in a high-rise apartment. The novel references Neville served in the Army during the Second World War, and these two films made his main career as an Army scientist (Price is a lab scientist). With the Army angle, Heston and Smith have tons of weapons and combat skills to keep them safe.
A Failure: The Ending
In the novel, it is revealed that the girl he meets is infected, and so are the other survivors. Neville is captured, and learns they view him as a monster (he is a pure human who can walk comfortably in sunlight killing vampires where they sleep). He is about to die, and the final line of the novel is the title, I am legend. He has become the legend, the monster that puts fear in those he thought were monsters. The ending is quite bleak, and sans The Last Man on Earth, the two other films fail at the ending.
I Am Legend and The Omega Man end with a survivor, or survivors, wanting to be fully human again. Neville’s blood is the key to bring back the human race. The Omega Man ends open-ended with the idea that maybe the survivors have a chance. I Am Legend, however, falls in the trap of leaving the ending open for a sequel. The bleak ending becomes one of hope.
The Last Man on Earth stays true to the source material. The infected survivors want to rebuild society as human vampire hybrids, a place the last man is not wanted. Price utters the title of the movie at the end and the credits roll. It remains dark and bleak, and like the novel, tells us the significance of the title. Smith’s I Am Legend title makes no sense, it lacks the dialogue and information to build up to the title, rendering it meaningless.
Adapting I Am Legend: Final Thoughts
By analyzing three adaptations of the same book, it’s clear that the most faithful, and strongest, adaptation is The Last Man on Earth. It retains the bleak tone, the Cortman adversary and the book’s central themes. It also balances the book’s use of Science Fiction and Horror, in particular the horror, more effectively than the other two.
The Omega Man keeps the sci-fi, but plays up too much of the cult/commune aspect of the story. This albino fringe group comes across as dissatisfied hippies, making the film a bit dated and a product of its time. I Am Legend plays up the action too much in the sci-fi world, and we’re left with a mostly forgettable film.
Though they had some failures, they still have some positive points. They’re still stories about a lonely man fighting to stay alive. I for one look forward to a new adaptation of this iconic novel in the near future.
*Is The Last Man on Earth the best version? What are some other themes found in the story? Please comment below.*
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