Book Review: “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson

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A great book about vampires.

A terrible source for film adaptations.

I recently finished I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This perennial horror favorite has been on my “to read” list forever. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, it ruined one of my favorite Charlton Heston movies.

I Am Legend tells the story of Robert Neville. A California man who is the lone survivor of an apocalyptic extinction event. A terrible plague swept mankind, killing nearly everyone, and turning any survivors into sub-human vampires thirsty for blood.

Neville spends his days searching for basic necessities and repairing damage to his home which is regularly assaulted by mobs of vampires every night.

It’s a short book, and the plot is very straightforward, but deeply poignant in comparison to most scifi/horror. So rather than give anything away, I’ll tell you a few reasons why it is far better than any of the three films that are based on it.

The Last Man on Earth (1964): Vincent Price plays “Robert Morgan”, and while the plot is pretty accurate to the book, the movie is clumsily executed and just not scary. I Am Legend does an excellent job of contrasting Robert Neville’s alcohol-fueled loneliness and tedium with points of action and sheer terror when he faces mobs of the undead. This movie fails on that major point.

The Omega Man (1971): Charlton Heston is a much more ass-kicking and brash Robert Neville. This Neville is a military scientist, and up against “The Family” who are a cult of nocturnal mutants that resent him as the only unharmed survivor of a biological war. The Omega Man gets a lot of the socio-political themes of the book right, and makes the antagonists a reasoning threat with a named leader. Where it falls apart is by adding a bunch of other survivors and losing the themes of madness and isolation too early. This all leads to a “Hollywood” ending that is unsatisfying.

I Am Legend (2007): Ugh. Where to begin. First, it’s in New York, not California. Second, Neville is a genius military scientist, AND indirectly responsible for the plague. In the book, Neville is a factory worker who is an “every man”. He learns by spending time at the local library. The vampires in this are also dumb animals, with no higher reasoning. This totally negates most of the social and existential themes of the book, reducing the story to be about the guilty redemption quest of the protagonist.

Long story short, read I Am Legend. It’s a phenomenal book. Well-written, and way ahead of its time. No wonder so many future works of horror and science fiction tip their hat to it.

What I Liked

  • Creative plot, excellent twist
  • Tight, pragmatic prose. Not too bland, but nothing flowery
  • An every man protagonist you could get behind, even if he was a drunk

What I Didn’t Like

  • A little too short. I wanted to see more of the barren world
  • The subplot with the main villain didn’t end how I’d hoped
  • That I now realize it has never had an adequate movie adaptation

 

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