When I heard about the movie being made of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) I was full of hope that here would be a faithful adaptation of this amazing book. However on watching it, and the supposed better alternate ending, I was left with nothing but disappointment. But it needn’t have been so, the original story would have translated so well into a movie that it hurts to think that it hasn’t been done justice. I will explore the reasons behind this.
The source material has to be one, if not the, best books that I have had the pleasure to read. It isn’t a long book, almost short enough to be called a novella, but it packs so much into its easy to read 160 pages.
For those who haven’t come across the book before it revolves around the main protagonist Robert Neville. Now Neville is just an ordinary guy who happens, for some unspecified reason, to have survived a plague that has wiped out the worlds population. However, most of the population haven’t remained dead and have changed into a type of vampire (only come out at night, stake through the heart, garlic avoidance, etc). For this reason Neville reinforces his house in order to withstand the nightly onslaught of “vampires” and, during the day, hunts for needed resources. Oh, and also wipes out any “vampires” that he comes across.
In the movie version of I Am Legend (2007) it also centres around Robert Neville, however, this time he is a former virologist for the US Army and he makes it his mission to cure the world, or at least find a cure to this man-made plague. This crucial difference between the two Nevilles makes a world of difference in the telling of this story and how it is received. On one hand you have book-Neville, the lonely, normal guy trying to make sense of his place in this new world, reading and learning everything he can, leading to a slow process of dawning knowledge the further he goes and the more he learns. On the other hand movie-Neville is ex-army (with all the training that goes with it), already a wealth of experience in the medical world and is already experimenting on subjects to find a cure to this disease. It is this difference that detracts from the overall power of the story.
The other thing about the book that didn’t get exploited and explored fully in the movie is the sense of containment, the being barricaded into this house every night, having to turn to drink to make the pain/torment go away and to make it through to the morning, finding things to pass the many hours of night and the hours of assault on the house. This aspect of the movie could easily have been shown if they portrayed it as a chamber piece akin to Quentin Tarantino‘s Hateful Eight or Reservoir Dogs. What I mean with this is that it is contained within the one building, limiting the environment, forcing the viewer to examine and identify with what is going on with the main character. There is a lot on internal dialogue with book-Neville but also a lot of talking to himself, this too would work, either with voice-over or monologue.
Contrasting the low-light, static, contained shots of the inside of Neville’s reinforced castle with his sun-lit outside raids and hunts for resources would give it some action, movement and excitement to break up the onslaught of tension and dread. But with the inevitability that, with the sunset, the assault is going to begin again.
This is definitely a case for less is more. Show the main threat but limit the exposure, there is no need for the mainstream movie jump-scare but the constant drip-drip threat from his nocturnal enemies. The real issue is that they do not go away, they do not have anyone else to threaten so they return, night after night. At first book-Neville observed the “vampires” but when they realised this they attempt to beguile him into coming out of his barricaded domicile. This leads to book-Neville positively trying to avoid looking at them and ignore their presence. But this proves to be futile as the most effect they have on him is audibly. Calling his name, beating and scratching on the door and walls. This happens to movie-Neville, but only the once whereas book-Neville gives the feeling that it is a more common occurrence, leading to a higher level of tension with the setting of the sun.
It’s only when book-Neville start to investigate the whole “vampire” myth that he starts to observe them properly, to perform experiments to see if the “vampire” myths are true. However, in doing these experiments it isn’t for the curing of the population of “vampires” it is for his protection, for his survival. The investigation is to make him a better fighter against this nocturnal menace that has been thrown against him. This is a pivotal part of the book and certainly leads to Neville becoming the person he realises by the end of the book, which needless to say is crucial to the book succeeding. In the movie we just do not get this level of character development. There is no hunting down of the “vampires”, there is no real development of movie-Neville as a character. He starts out trying to cure this plague and ends up trying to do the same thing.
Locked up in his house night after night and searching the surroundings day after day book-Neville is alone. So alone. Haunted by the way he lost his wife and children, desperate for someone of even something to share his time with to the point that he is willing to give it all up. This is pretty much the driving aspect of this book, the constant loneliness. On the flip side movie-Neville has his dog with him from the start so the whole loneliness aspect is reduced to the point that the feeling doesn’t come across even if he is the last man on earth, as you are lead to believe. Book-Neville exhibits the exact kind of desperation a lonely man would show when the dog eventually turns up near his house. He tries his hardest to catch the dog, mainly out of his desire to have company, he wants it so much. Then he realises that he can’t just do that, he needs to earn it’s trust and entice it into his life. It gives him some purpose, some respite from the day-to-day and night-to-night activities. This exploration into the psyche of the lonely man is glossed over in the film, the mannequin scenes show a small part of this but not to the same effect as that of the book. Again, there is no need to over-complicate things in translating this to a movie format, good acting and direction could easily make this moment of desperation and loneliness come across on the screen
Book-Neville’s world is turned upside down when Ruth appears. This is a major part of the story that isn’t in the movie. The movie story-line instead goes for some more survivors, some actual humans who just happen to have survived for this long out by themselves. What we don’t know when Ruth turns up is that she is from a new, sentient, thinking society of”vampires” that book-Neville wasn’t aware of. To book-Neville, vampires are vampires. They all get dealt with the same way. With a stake through the heart. This difference between the film and the book negates the possibility of the movie having the powerful ending that the book brings. The tag line of the movie “The last man on Earth is not alone” is cheating a bit, playing with words to make you think that he is the last human. The arrival of these other survivors, and the revelation that there is a safe-haven with more survivors throws this tag line out of the window. It makes a mockery of the whole movie’s premise.
The book leads you to believe Neville is the hero, the last man on Earth must be the shining light, carrying the torch, for the world as we know it, but as the book nears it’s conclusion it becomes evident that this is no longer the world that we know and knew but something new. In this new world Neville has become the anti-hero, something hideous and monstrous. It is this change in point of view from book-Neville to new-vampire that leads to the wonderful ending of the book, the realisation that he is no longer in his world but is part of theirs and he is the monster that he believed them to be. This switch from hero to anti-hero is something that the movie couldn’t and wouldn’t do. To make movie-Neville an anti-hero just doesn’t fit into the so called happy- or Hollywood-ending that is prevalent across so many movies. Movie-Neville had to end as the saviour, the martyr, laying his life on the line to save the rest of the world. Even when it detracts from the entire movie experience some people just can’t rely on a good story, however it ends. Not everyone needs to be fed a happy ending to leave them on a high.
In terms of how to translate the book ending to the movie, I believe that pointers can be taken from Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, a movie from 1995. The whole movie revolves around a story put together by a career criminal whilst being interrogated about a heist that apparently didn’t have anything to steal. Now, if you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects I suggest you do so immediately, it is well worth the watch (and stop reading here!). The ending, as seen below, shows the crippled criminal Verbal Kint shuffling out of the police station after telling his story to the investigating detective.
As we watch him make his way down the street, followed by a car, the shot concentrates on his shuffling, awkward gait which slowly morphs into a normal stride. As we pan up, his palsied hand is stretched out and extracts a cigarette then sparks a lighter and the realisation hits that this has all been an act for the whole movie. This person is Keyser Söze and he has just got away with it all! Now, Keyser Söze is a very bad man, he has done some despicable things in the process of this movie but here he is, anti-hero, escaping from the police, from justice. Now, does this ending need to be Hollywood-ified? Does it need to be remade with a happier twist? No, this ending is probably one of the best endings of a movie that I have seen. It shows me that it is perfectly acceptable for the anti-hero to get away with things as long as the story is good enough and the direction is strong. There is no need for an automatic happy ending.
My point here is that an authentic adaptation of I Am Legend could have carried off this type of ending precisely because the story is good enough, following the novel closely and studying Neville’s actions and thoughts. The ending could have been just as powerful as in the book, just as powerful as that of The Usual Suspects. Combined with the more intense, focused, claustrophobic vision of the rest of the story this would put it in an entirely different class to the 2007 version.
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in his pain.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he
swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend
What do you think about I Am Legend? Have you read the book and watched the film?