I Am Legend

Today I read Matheson’s I am Legend. It didn’t take long, since it’s more of a novella than anything. Several interesting points came up.

1. I’d forgotten how much Hollywood seems to ruin everything. Whilst I know that the film is only based on the novel, it still gives people a false preconception of what the novel is about. Tell someone you’re reading it, and their immediate response is ‘I am Legend? Oh, like that film with Will Smith?’ It’s nothing like the film. AT ALL. The film spends the standard Hollywood hundred minutes revelling in post-apocalyptic shots of empty towns, and feral creatures fighting to survive. Also, there’s the crushing loneliness that Will Smith evidently feels, and the pathetically overwrought emotional attachment to the dog. Whereas the novel has far many more layers, despite its length. It is made quite clear that we are dealing with vampires. And these vampires are (as per) suited to the cultural needs of the time.

2. The vampires in IAL are created through infection (there seems to be a division in the ways authors choose to portray the creation of vampires. It’s either a choice/lifestyle, or an infection) and Matheson goes into some detail about how the disease takes over the body. He tries to scientifically reason through the many aspects of vampire mythology. In this case, the vampires struggle with sunlight, garlic, and sometimes sleep in soil. They do not turn into bats, and they have a reflection. A few interesting changes included the fact that the religious iconography had to be specific to what the pre-vampire human believed in (ie for Jews, only the Star of David would work…which I think is also touched upon in Being Human) and that a stake through the heart was not necessary. The body of a vampire need only be punctured to trigger a reaction causing the form to turn to dust.

3. The vampires seem to be some sort of cross between a feral pack and zombies. From the beginning, they wait outside the home of the protagonist in groups, howling and rattling doors. They are described as being “overtaken by a hunger for blood”, and not owning their body or brain posthumously. The vampires are mostly female, or at least, they are the ones which Neville notices. At the start of the novel he is tormented by sexual frustration and finds himself thinking about the forms of the female vamps, but desire soon wanes after a desire to survive overtakes it. Later on, we encounter the improved version of the vampire in Ruth, who can walk in daylight and counteract her brainless nature with a pill. Neville still treats her with some derision though, calling her “just a woman”. Still, her appearance provides the new vampire race with a figurehead, and humanises it, rather than the (to quote Mr Forss) faceless mass that we see at the beginning of the novella.

4. The whole story seems to be about the dominance of science in the culture of the time, particularly the idea of ‘germ warfare’ which Neville postulates as being the cause. Although he at first disputed the idea of science being the explanation for the vampires, he found himself warming to the idea and researched into it, finding a logical explanation for the supernatural. He cannot cure the disease, but others (as we later learn) find a way to manage it, and create a new society of semi-humans. As Neville simply puts it “bacteria mutate.” Society will always regenerate, and here we have the basest form of society – one that survives on death, that seeks it out. Society has come “full circle”.

All in all, an interesting take on the vampire myth. Vampires, like in so many modern fictions, have become the basis of society and it is the humans that are hunted and feared.

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2 thoughts on “I Am Legend

  1. The Will Smith vehicle ‘I Am Legend’ was in fact the third film based on the Matheson novel. In the ’70s there was a version made starring Charlton Heston titled ‘The Omega Man’ and prior to that there was an Italian co production featuring Vincent Price called ‘The Last Man on Earth’. The latter film was available in its entirety on YouTube – http://youtu.be/dX6nsSCapiA

    I’ve not actually read the book so I couldn’t say how faithful these earlier adaptations are, but I found them to be better films, though I did still enjoy the Will Smith one.

  2. I’m aware of it being the third…I think the point is that most people have heard of the Will Smith version rather than any of the others (particularly those of my generation anyhow) and this interpretation has somewhat ruined the perception of the novel for others.

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