i am legend (richard matheson)

I finished rereading the original novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and now it’s hard not to be a little bitter at how they eviscerated the book for the movie. I don’t remember too well but I almost think the Charlton Heston film was more faithful (so to speak).

Will Smith’s version is still a pretty good zombie movie, but that’s really where it ends. There are a million ways he departed from the far superior novel. Normally I don’t whine about this kind of thing, because who needs to see a scene-for-scene adaptation, really? But in this case they changed so much that they inverted or destroyed the themes of the source material, and that’s the part that’s tough to forgive.

I won’t go through all of the changes; some of them really don’t make that much difference. They didn’t have to have Neville’s neighbors attacking him, for example, as opposed to random faceless strangers. It doesn’t make that much difference that the film Neville is a scientist and soldier from the get-go; it makes his survival more plausible. But there are a few really crucial differences.

  • The plague turns people into semi-intelligent vampires, not mindless zombies. This is vital for two reasons: first of all, it sets up the pessimistic twist ending, which is roughly ten million times more interesting than the ending of the movie. Second of all, vampires have lore, traditional vulnerabilities, which the novel’s Neville spends most of the story studying and sorting out. This brings us to the second crucial difference.
  • The plague is natural, not an accident of scientific research. It’s axiomatic of zombie flicks like Resident Evil and 28 Days Later and now I Am Legend that humanity created the zombies through ill-advised Tampering In God’s Domain. In the novel, no one knows where the plague came from (one speculation is nuclear testing, but later it’s suggested that it’s been around for centuries or longer), and Neville spends a great deal of time just discovering that it’s biological rather than supernatural. It’s Man vs. Nature, not Man vs. Foolish Man, which changes the tone of the book. And of course one of the vulnerabilities he’s studying is aversion to the cross, which brings us to the next difference.
  • God isn’t in the novel. The novel’s Neville never sees signs of God. He concludes that the power of the cross is psychological, since he finds that it’s ineffective against Jewish vampires (who are repelled by the Torah instead) and that it’s totally ineffective against vampires who have accepted their fate.
  • There is a “safe haven” at the end, but it’s not what you think. I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, which you really should read, but ironically it’s more of a twist ending than the one they ripped off from M. Twist Shyamalan’s Signs. It’s so much more thought-provoking and fertile than “oh boy, the good guys might win after all.” I have nothing against happy endings in theory, but when you change the ending of this story you wreck its entire raison d’être. I guess we know by now that Hollywood doesn’t care. Movies don’t have meaning, they have profit, not to be too trite about it.

So: Religious Propaganda 1, Intelligent Mid-20th-Century Science Fiction 0. Except that hopefully a small percentage of people who saw the movie will go read the book.