A weekly look at transformative works, and just how they compare to their source material…
Based on the novel I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson
Adaptation Grade: C
NEVILLE: It’s just… I was saving that bacon!
I am a big fan of the undead. I like vampires, but also their more socially awkward cousins, the zombie. One of my favorite things to do as a child was watch monster movies on TV (I was nine), and one of the most memorable was Night of the Living Dead. Most notably because it was my entry into “Realism,” which is just a fancy way of saying that everyone dies. Which is pretty realistic, come to think about it.
I am especially a fan of the old school zombie. I find something far more sinister in their slow, shuddering walk and indefatigableness. They. Will. Not. Stop. Unless they are eating your brains. So, when I found out that I Am Legend was about zombies, and in particular, fast zombies, it took me a long time to see it. Far be it from me, Zombie Snob Extraordinaire, to deign to watch something so uncanon. This vegetarian would rather eat brains herself.
As it turns out, I liked it quite a bit. For a while, at least.
So, besides fast zombies, I Am Legend is about a doctor named Robert Neville (Will Smith) who survived a virus that killed off most of humanity. Of the other survivors of the plague, most evolved into fast, strong zombies with alopecia and UV sensitivity, as well as a real hate-on for the more human survivors, of which Neville is the only one in Manhattan. He has a daily routine that involves scavenging for supplies, making radio broadcasts, and testing animals for a cure to the degenerative, zombie-inducing effects of the virus.
When he thinks he has found a cure, he kidnaps a female zombie as a test subject. He barely escapes (and I can’t tell you how, because I still can’t watch that scene). The next night, he tries to kill all the zombies, but is almost killed himself until two other survivors rescue him. They give him news that there is a human encampment in Vermont.
The next night, zombies attack! Survivors escape! The kidnapped zombie woman is sort of cured! All at the same time, actually, but not without some sacrifice. And Neville becomes a legend.
I did like this movie. There was one scene in particular where I bawled like an angry baby.
But then I read the book.
In the movie, the embattled Dr. Neville overcomes the zombies, sacrificing himself so that humanity can go on. In the book, Neville sacrifices himself because he realizes that, in a land full of vampires (they were zombie-like vampires in the book), he is the monster. Unable to cope with how terrifying he must be, he ends it all and laughs at the irony.
So here we have a book that was and is paradigm changing, with a message that we don’t always hear: that maybe we’re the monsters sometimes. That we humans can think we’re doing good, but we’re not. That sometimes we have to accept that and step out of the game to set things to rights. But does the movie follow through on all this promise? Of course not.
Instead, the entire moral of the story is surgically removed so that no one has to think about it too much – first, in the 1971 adaptation, The Omega Man where we get Charlton Heston and crazy albino Family people with no purpose, and then again in 2007 with CGI zombies. The protagonist gets to be the hero and there is the glimmering hope of “survivors” somewhere that aren’t pale or made from CGI. Go Hollywood.
Before I knew the better ending, I liked the adaptation. But I like that we might be the monsters more, and now I cannot unknow how much greater it could have been. Such is life.
I Am Legend
Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman | Directed by Francis Lawrence
Release Date: December 14, 2007 | Running Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan