I Am Legend (1954) – A Retrospective Review of the Novel
Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend may not be as famous as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it is as least as influential on the development of modern vampire cinema. Not only have there been three official film adaptations; Matheson’s science-fiction approach to vampirism prefigures the majority of modern film treatments of the subject, and the novel’s story of a world overwhelmed by the living dead has served as the template for an apparently deathless parade of apocalyptic zombie movies, beginning most notably with George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That is quite an achievement for a rather short novel with only a single major character and very little dialogue. Still, the question is whether the book is any good in its own right, or is it just a well of inspiration for the cinema? To some extent, it depend on whom you ask: Leonard Wolf, in his pioneering work A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, dismisses I Am Legend as boring, but in his undead encyclopedia V is for Vampire, David J. Skal (Wolf’s heir apparent as the premiere commentator on all things undead) calls the book a “masterful science-fiction/horror-thriller.” Matheson’s tale may not quite be a masterpiece, but it is an engrossing experience that deserves to be appreciated on its own literary terms, not just as a seminal piece of horror history.
Set in Los Angeles, 1976 (which at the time of publication was over two decades in the future), the novel tells the tale of Robert Neville, apparently the only survivor of a plague that has turned the rest of the world in vampires. The story begins by presenting the day-to-day monotony of Neville’s struggle for survival – growing garlic, repairing his generator, carving stakes – while he struggles with loneliness, despair, and sexual frustration. At first Neville spends his time feeling sorry for himself and mourning the deaths of his wife and his daughter, drinking heavily and blasting out classical music to drown the sound of the vampires who swarm around his house every night, hungering for his blood. After a close call (he stays out too late one day, arriving home after dark, when the vampires are out), he gets his act together and begins to approach his problem analytically, searching for answers: Why do vampires fear the garlic? Do they have to avoid running water? Why is a stake through the heart effective? And after centuries in the darkness, how did this ancient plague manage to overrun the entire planet?
Working on the theory that vampirism is a disease, Neville systematically proves that garlic creates an allergic reaction in the infected, that the myth about running water is only a myth, and that piercing the heart is not necessary: any large enough wound will allow oxygen into the body, causing the bacillus to parasitize its host and sporulate, the spores spreading on the wind to find new victims. The plague managed to overwhelm the Earth because the spores were carried on the dust storms that swept the planet after a nuclear war (referenced only briefly in the dialogue, during one of the book’s flashbacks).
However, Neville runs up against an obvious roadblock: a bacillus in the blood would not explain why the undead fear the cross and avoid their reflection in a mirror. Eventually, he recalls that, as the world plunged into chaos, a wave of apocalyptic religious revivalism swept the world, implanting old superstitions into the minds of those who were killed and resurrected by the plague. Their brains no longer fully functional (which explains why they never thought to burn down the house where Neville hides out), they believed themselves to be damned creatures who must shun religious icons, and their self-loathing creates a hysterical blindness that prevents them from seeing their own reflection. (Matheson specifies that only Christian vampires fear the cross; for Jews, the Star of David does the trick.)
Neville befriends a dog that has somehow survived, but the creature turns out to be infected, and Neville is unable to cure it. The dog’s death is a turning point for Neville, after which he gives up even the illusion of hope for companionship. He resigns himself to facing life as it is, realizing that the vampires are not the formidable creatures of legend but a “highly perishable” race that can be defeated.
Two years later, Neville resembles a hermit who has stopped shaving and cutting his hair. He has neither hopes nor dreams, but his life is secure. His one diversion is hunting for Ben Cortman, a neighbor-turned-vampire who retains enough intelligence to avoid Neville’s efforts, realizing that he is being singled out for special attention.
Neville’s daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of Ruth, who runs away from him in fear (hardly surprising, considering his appearance). Neville catches and questions her, but her explanations for how she has managed to survive are not fully satisfying. When Neville tests her blood, he realizes that she is infected, and she knocks him out, leaving a note to explain that there are others like her – living vampires who have found a treatment that keeps them alive even though it does not cure the disease.
Ruth’s note warns Neville to leave before her comrades come back for him, but Neville stays. Six months later, the new society of living vampires shows up, wiping out the undead – including Cortman – and imprisoning Neville. The Last Man on Earth is to be executed for the murder of the many living vampries he killed (including Ruth’s husband), but Ruth slips him a poison so that he may escape the executioner’s noose. In his last moments, Neville realizes that the standard of normalcy is a majority concept: in the new world, he is the abnormal one, the lone monster who comes without warning to destroy loved ones without mercy. He is Legend.
Through experiments on the dead vampires he had discovered that the bacilli effected the creation of a powerful body glue that sealed bullet openings as soon as they were made. Bullets were enclosed almost immediately, and since the system was activated by germs, the bullet couldn’t hurt it. The system could, in fact, contain almost an indefinite amount of bullets, since the body glue prevented a penetration of more than a few fractiosn of an inch. Shooting vampires was like throwing pebbles into tar.
– from I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The strength of the novel lies chiefly in two areas: the characterization and the scientific approach to vampirism. Matheson takes a tired cliche, the stuff of old-fashioned Gothic tales, and morphs it into a modern, credible, science-fiction action-adventure story, loaded with thrills and horror. More than that, he gives us a memorable Everyman hero, a working class guy who rolls with the punches – and punches back. There is enough gun-play and other action so that one can easily imagine a young Clint Eastwood playing the part, but the character also has a thoughtful, introspective side – pretty much a necessity when you have no human companionship left.
Matheson does an impressive job of keeping the story going with only one character, who is called upon to act and think but seldom to discuss. Not only does he have no human comrades; the vampires are inarticulate. (The only words we hear from them are Cortman’s repeated refrain, “Come out, Neville!” – urging Robert to give himself up to the vampire throng surrounding his house.) A few flashbacks provide glimpses of how the world fell apart. Matheson captures Neville’s despair over having to throw his dead daughter into a pit where the dead are consigned to flames, in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. And the resurrection of Neville’s wife is a nice, traditional “horror” scene. Later, in the scenes with Ruth, the dialogue chews over some heavier material – regarding the relative merits of the emerging new society – without sounding too heavy-handed.
There are some mis-steps. Neville realizes early on that not all the vampires he hunts are dead, because some of the infected that he stakes are still breathing. Yet it never occurs to him to make any distinction between them, and the reader is left wondering why the novel makes the distinction at all – until the third act revelation regarding Ruth.
Decades before the AIDS epidemic, Matheson’s portrait of a group of people who are infected but able to live with the disease, thanks to some miraculous drug cocktail, seems prophetic. Yet for some reason, Matheson seems uncomfortable with the drug explanation for the new order of vampires and has Neville realize, after looking at Ruth’s blood under a microscope, that “bacteria can mutate” (into what is never explained – the idea is never developed further).
At times, the book reveals its age. Although Neville traverses large cross-sections of Los Angeles, his mind remains rooted in White Male Reality. There is not a hint of awareness about the ethnic nature of any of the neighborhoods he passes through. The one black character shows up for a two-paragraph flashback (providing a tiny piece of exposition) and promptly disappears: he isn’t even named; he is just “the Negro.” While discussing the question of whether a cross would frighten non-Christian vampires, the best word Matheson can muster for followers of Islam is Mohammedan, which sounds a bit awkward compared to Muslim.
No doubt unwittingly, Matheson also reveals the pitfalls of de-mystifying vampires: robbed of their satanic cache, they are not very frightening. The blood-suckers in I Am Legend are dangerous only because of their superior numbers, and even then Neville can often outmaneuver and outfight them. As individuals, the dead vampires are not particularly interesting. Only Cortman, who still has a glimmer of intelligence, stands out ever so slightly, but he is not likely to topple Count Dracula from the throne of Vampire King.
The real horror in the book is not the vampires per se; it is the existential dread of being alone, of realizing that one’s culture – the beliefs and assumptions that are an almost unconscious part of daily living – is ephemeral, a construct held in place by society, and if that society disappears, everything else disappears with it. Neville’s final revelation – that he is the monster in this new world order – strikes a knock-out blow to the reader with more impact than any philosophical treatise. The ending of the book opens wide your sense of wonder not to uplifting glories of a bountiful future but the unacknowledged emptiness lying beneath the veneer of civilization.
Despite the book’s cinematic potential, there has never been a great film adaptation of I Am Legend. The first, aborted attempt was for Hammer Films in England, but the British censor would not approve Matheson’s script. Fans can only shakes their heads in regret. The film was scheduled to be directed by Val Guest, and one suspects he would have delivered something along the lines of his two Quatermass movies, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and QUATERMASS II – two black-and-white gems of science-fiction horror.
The first adaptation to make it all the way to the screen was 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. Although relatively faithful to the novel, the film was hampered by an obviously low budget, and Vincent Price was seriously miscast in the lead, here named Robert Morgan. The film captures some of the gloom of the source material, particularly in scenes of Morgan disposing of his daughter’s body in the vast smoking pit where the dead plague victims are consigned.
The script, credited to Logan Swanson (Matheson’s pseudonym) and William F. Leicester, makes a couple interesting changes. Unlike Neville, Morgan is not a working class man but a scientist, presumably to make his study of the disease more believable. Also, Morgan makes frequent broadcasts on his ham radio, hoping to contact other survivors – something that the book’s Neville never considered. Most significantly, in the film, Neville is capable of effecting a cure by using his own blood – an unscientific piece of dramatic license that turns out to be rather pointless, since he is killed before his cure can do any good for the world at large.
Seven years later, Charlton Heston starred as THE OMEGA MAN (1971). Considering the action-thriller elements of the book, Heston was a better choice than Price to play the lead, here again named Neville, and the car chases, fisticuffs, and gunfire are handled well enough to make the film reasonably entertaining. The best sequence is probably the opening: instead of introducing us to Neville’s routine at home, we first seem him traveling the streets of empty downtown Los Angeles – a striking series of images – before realizing that the sun is low and he must return before dark.
Unfortunately, the script replaces the vampire element with mutants created by biological warfare, and the essential disturbing idea of the novel – that normality is changed and Neville is now the monster – is ignored in favor of a rather conservative approach, in which Neville (still a scientist as in LAST MAN ON EARTH but now also an officer in the army) remains the undisputed vestige of the old order, who will wipe out the new society and restore things to the way they once were.
As before, Neville is immune to the plague , but there is a difference: In the book and the previous film, the protagonist had been bitten by a bat with a weakened strain of the bacillus. In OMEGA MAN, Neville was the recipient of an experimental cure that arrived too late to save anyone else, but the potential cure remains in his blood. Taking the idea from LAST MAN ON EARTH one step further, OMEGA MAN has Neville’s blood provide the immunity that will save mankind and restore them to dominance of the planet.
In 2007, the most recent adaptation of the novel – and the first one to use its title – reached movie screens in the form of the big-budget I AM LEGEND, starring Will Smith. Despite the title, the film is as much a remake of THE OMEGA MAN as it is an adpatation of the novel. Again Neville is a doctor working in the military, who is first glimpsed on a lonely trek in a major city (this time New York). In a nod to THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, he frequently broadcasts on the radio, hoping to contact other survivors, but many of the other elements are lifted from the Heston film. Again, we have mutants instead of vampires. (At least those in OMEGA MAN were articulate, mimicking the new society that emerged at the end of the novel; these mutants are merely videogame style rampaging monsters.) Also, in OMEGA MAN, Neville has a statue of Caesar to whom he speaks as if conversing with a friend; in LEGEND, Smith’s Neville has a small community of mannequins with whom he carries on conversations.
By far the best official version of the book, I AM LEGEND still falls short of its source material, thanks mostly to some unconvincing CGI mutants and a final act that borrows too much from OMEGA MAN, with Neville once again acting as the sacrificial martyr whose untainted blood will save the world. It’s too bad. The idea of a science-fiction vampire story is no longer new, but Matheson’s book still has the makings of a great movie, and with a few minor alterations to update the details, it could be translated to the screen virtually intact, without any Hollywood improvements. Instead of another UNDERWORLD or BLADE, the world could use another adaptation of Matheson’s novel – this time, one that stays true to the LEGEND.