The Book was Better (or was it): I Am Legend

Will Smith walks towards you with a German Shepherd at his side, a destroyed NYC skyline behind him

I nearly chose I Am Legend for a Confession, but I’ve read it before – however little I remembered beyond the ending. Instead, I’m going to take another look at it side by side with the Will Smith adaptation (as a Bad SF Fan, I haven’t seen the Vincent Price and Charlton Heston versions). Which will be better?

Book cover: I Am Legend - Richard Matheson (pale spectral faces loom out at you with reaching claws)

This month sees the first film adaptation that largely throws the book out the window after stealing its title, which makes it a tricky candidate for The Book Was Better. I have to assume that many fans were deeply disappointed; but I’m a Bad SF Fan – I couldn’t remember either story well enough to have an opinion.

The book is a classic – with reason (that ending!) – but it’s a debut novel and I think it shows in the shoddy world-building and dodgy characterisation. It’s also Golden Age scifi, and… that shows too. There’s aspects of I Am Legend that I really like (at least in principle); there are others that are painful hallmarks of its time.

On the good side, Matheson does an excellent job of building tension and playing his narrative cards close to his chest. Robert Neville was a damaged man before his now undead neighbours began clustering on his lawn each night, baying for his blood. Now, his state of mind is fragile at best, clinging on to life if not hope. He survives behind shutters, a generator keeping his lights on and music playing, running a freezer full of food to keep him going. We meet him making stakes – lots of stakes – and obsessing about garlic; but it’s a while before we confirm who haunts his nights.

The niggles start here. Because it’s the 50s, the female vampires spend their nights exposing themselves and making ‘lewd gestures’ to try and tempt Neville out. He in turn obsesses over his sexual frustrations (we eventually find out it’s been about 5 months since his wife died). Needless to say, this didn’t win me over.

The next niggle follows hard on the heels of the first: sometimes, the vampires kill each other. I never quite made sense of this. They are portrayed as feral, which I can’t reconcile with the society that emerges at the end. And they’re the same people – Ruth lives near enough that Neville kills her husband (…which begs the question of where she was that day, but we’ll skip that for now). That said, we see the creatures only through Neville’s eyes and it’s clear that however expert he becomes in the disease itself (another niggle: it’s frankly unbelievable what he works out with a bit of library reading) he never really understands what he’s seeing.

But the rest of the world-building is nothing but tinsel either. We learn in an aside (blink and you miss it) that there was a war, which caused dust storms that spread the infection. It’s all hand-waved at best – the book is far more interested in Neville’s state of mind and struggle with despair than its own nominal context.

But – inevitably – both of my major issues are founded in the book’s treatment of women. Firstly, Neville focuses his violent experiments on female undead – exclusively, as far as we see. While this eventually occurs to him, he excuses himself on the grounds that at least he won’t rape them (and honestly, I’m not sure whether this is meant to be a comment on other SF novels of the time, or whether he genuinely thinks that makes torturing and killing them okay). When Ruth appears, he reflects that it’s just as well she didn’t appear a couple of years earlier, as his sexual frustration would almost certainly have driven him to rape her. Seriously, what is it with classic SF?

Secondly, in spite of the fact that he treats her abominably, Ruth apparently falls in love with him. I don’t think so. He murdered her husband. He threatens her society. He assaults her, drags her to his home and subjects her to cross-examination. She’s clearly terrified of him. But apparently she learns to respect this lonely psycho, and to empathise with him. She becomes his saviour (after a fashion), and tries to encourage him to save himself when it’s clear that time is running out for him. If my disbelief had been struggling before, this would have punctured it irretrievably. All I’m left with is a complete sense of bemusement at the apparent perceptions of women held by 50s SF authors. They must have found real life terribly frustrating.

I’m conscious I’ve done a lot of ranting, but I want to come back to Matheson’s excellent handling of tension and his focus on Neville’s emotional state. The sequence where Neville realises his clock has stopped – leaving him exposed at sunset – is nerve-shredding. The befriending of the stray dog is heart-rending.

And I have to appreciate his consideration of what such an isolated, violent existence would do to someone: Neville is defined throughout by rage and violent outbursts. He’s a man in extremis, alone and hopeless. He’s driven by fear and frustration, pickled in grief for his lost family. In the flashbacks, we get the smallest hint of a gentler soul, but in the present he shows more consideration for the dog than for Ruth. Murder is easier than hope – he wants to kill her regardless of whether she’s infected, because he can’t deal with the realisation that he might not be the last man on earth after all.

Ironically, it’s these qualities that I see as the main link between the novel and Francis Lawrence’s film, which jettisons Matheson’s plot entirely. The action has been transplanted to New York City (and moved from the 70s to 2012). Neville has gone from a blue collar worker with an unnatural ability to learn microbiology from library books to a military research scientist (score one for credibility). He’s also gained a good deal of charm, thanks to Will Smith and the company of an adorable German Shepherd, Sam.

On the other hand, it’s a Will Smith movie, so it comes burdened with terrible, gratuitous CGI and nonsensical scenes (why, why would you hunt deer from a car? Especially if you can’t make it look real?) that serve no purpose but as possible PR shots. At least it gets fabulous backgrounds – I do love a good post-apocalyptic cityscape.

The Batman and Superman logos are a clear sign of the end of days
Batman and Superman in the same movie? It *must* be the end of days

Unlike the novel’s Neville, Will Smith has a watch that doesn’t need winding and comes with a built-in alarm. He shares the emotional baggage of a lost family – but in his case, I’m left giving Hollywood tropes the side-eye as they’re the casualties of a completely unnecessary helicopter stunt (you can almost hear a producer frothing GIVE US MORE EXPLOSIONS) rather than victims of the disease. With nothing to live for and complete immunity to the disease, he’s free to stay in the dead city and work on a cure.

In this version, vampirism is explicitly our own fault: a cure for cancer gone horribly wrong (Hollywood does delight in portraying scientific advances as hubris, another pet hate of mine). But just as in the book, Neville has made his accommodation with his fate and settled in to being horribly, desperately alone.

He creates an illusion of regular human contact by chatting to shop floor mannequins carefully posed in his local video store. This came across as creepy even before he began flirting with one. I assume this was meant to be a sign of his social dysfunction. I hope so. I have a nagging feeling Hollywood may have thought it was adorably quirky.

Thankfully, the mannequins are part of his downfall. When he kidnaps a vampire subject to test his latest vaccine, he attracts the attention of a particularly ferocious male – who promptly copies Neville’s man-trap and uses one of the mannequins to lure him into it. It’s a great scene that strongly implies that he has been under-estimating them in a number of ways – an idea the rest of the cinematic release subsequently fails to deliver on.

Crucially, the one memory I had of I Am Legend was a scene that doesn’t actually appear in the cinematic edit, where – in a call-back to the novel – Neville realises that the vampires aren’t mindlessly feral. When the vampires assault his home, the ferocious male holds them back and effectively negotiates with Neville to secure the female’s release. Neville is permitted to leave New York carrying the burden of knowing he has been murdering thinking, feeling beings – however unrecognisably human they otherwise are.

Had this been the ending, I’d probably declare Lawrence’s film better than the book and give it 4 stars. It’s a perfectly serviceable monster apocalypse film, and Smith brings enough charisma to the screen to offset my niggles. It drops the worst tropes (I couldn’t help thinking, as Smith strapped his female test subject to the operating table, that in the book his hands would be twitching to his belt; no such urges for the 21st century hero) and gets across his isolation and his reluctance to embrace hope for fear of the pain of its loss.

Add in some lovely if calorie-free scene-setting (Smith playing golf on an aircraft carrier; Smith dangling his feet in a fish pond at the museum; some sensible hunting and gathering trips on foot), and I can almost overlook Hollywood’s determination to kill any woman Neville cares about (even the dog turns out to be female – we find out Sam is Samantha when she is fatally injured, in spite of it going unmentioned during an earlier sequence when Neville thinks the dog is dead. See my side eye. Isn’t it manly enough to care about a male dog when it’s your only link to your dead family and your sole living companion?)

In both cuts, Sam’s death pushes Neville into a suicidal night-time confrontation with the vampires, in which he is badly injured and from which he’s unexpectedly rescued by another survivor (no suggestion here that Anna is – or is suspected to be – one of Them). But Neville struggles to adjust to the idea that others have survived and Smith’s charm is replaced by erratic fury. He becomes fabulously unlikeable, his rusty social skills less of a problem than his unwillingness to even try to connect with another human being.

Before it is clear whether they can forge a lasting alliance, it becomes evident that the vampires have followed them home. This is where the edits diverge: instead of my remembered ending, there is a finale in which Neville conveniently realises that he has developed a vaccine after all and sacrifices himself so that Anna and Ethan can escape with it. It’s all terribly tragic and heroic (and involves a large explosion, so the producers were presumably happy).

If you’re not expecting a scene that delivers on the question of what makes us human (hell, Neville even comments that abandonment of survival instincts is a clear sign that any last human instincts have withered – 48 hours before his own suicidal assault), then the explosive climax works fine. But there are so many narrative hints that it’s going in a different direction that this one just left me bemused.

So here’s my real problem: I planned this month to be an outright easy winner for the novel. It’s many years since I read I Am Legend and I’d forgotten the problematic detail in favour of remembering the stunning twist at the end. Unfortunately, that ending doesn’t make up for everything that goes before, which puts me in an awkward spot.

Because whatever the faults of the movie, Will Smith is terribly easy to watch – even with the wrong ending – and as I don’t particularly like the book, I’m not phased by the film’s deviation from the plot. It ought to be possible to strip out Neville’s obsession with sex – and remove Ruth’s unexpected crush – and make a stunning claustrophobic thriller, but Lawrence chose not to – and if you haven’t read the book his movie more or less works on its own merits.

So I think, in the end, I have to declare it a tie. The book is just not as good as it promises to be. The film is a terrible translation of the book, but an acceptable film in its own right (especially if I embrace the alternate ending as canon; it turns out my lingering memory was the original ending, later discarded). Both embrace elements that set my teeth on edge. There’s no clear winner here – just a lingering dissatisfaction all round.