Last night I watched I Am Legend on DVD. That morning I had just finished listening to the audio book of the original story by Richard Matheson. Last year I read the book itself for the first time. My first introduction to the story was through the Charlton Heston movie, The Omega Man, many years ago.
It’s always interesting watching the movie version of popular books. For a start it is an entirely different experience – a book that is absorbed slowly and read over 15-20 hours is now represented visually and condensed into 2 hours of viewing. What takes place in the readers imagination as they read the authors words is nullified by the imaginative construct of the movie’s writer, director and art director. We receive much more than we interpret; what is ours to speculate and expand upon is now delivered to us pre-digested.
Often too, invariably almost, the director has a different take on the original material. Often the premise the book is built on is extracted but the scenes and episodes re-configured, deleted, or added to. In some cases the meaning changes altogether, new characters are introduced and others omitted. This can be a good thing, but in my experience, rarely is.
The book in this case is a classic. It has all the ingredients of a great and timeless story: a devastated world in which there appears but one survivor trying to survive and adapt – and all the while fighting off the undead inheritors of this devastated world, the vampires who flourish by night and would have him dead.
The book is expertly written – Matheson was a very good writer of these type of stories. The loneliness of Neville’s existence and the bleak landscape he lives in is rendered simply but very effectively. The tension of battling against the vampires is similarly convincing, in particular his battle with his would-be nemesis – and former friend – Cortman. While most of the episodes in the book are simple and straight-forward much is revealed by them. Deeper themes are gradually brought to the surface – the existential loneliness of Neville; the coming of a new society showing all the flaws of the old; and the recognition finally by Neville that he is yesterday’s man, with no place in the re-configured future.
Of the movies The Omega Man is closer to the plot and spirit of the book. It is a good movie in it’s own right, a proto-sci-fi movie with the most rugged of individualists – Charlton Heston – playing the resilient and tormented Robert Neville. While not all is lost in the translation from book to screen, it makes different choices, and takes a different path. That’s the problem with movie adaptations – they’ll be forever judged against the book, no matter how good.
This most recent movie version is different again – and disappointing. From a purely filmic point of view the pace and structure is wrong. A long build-up ends abruptly with an unconvincing conclusion. As you would expect from a movie today the empty and overgrown streets of New York are convincingly rendered, but a movie is more than the sets. As a movie it is so-so.
Judged against the book it is a different story. I don’t know what the writers were thinking, but most of the key elements have been removed from the movie version. In the book Neville was under siege by the vampire humans, but in the movie that does not occur and so much of the tension is removed. Cortman, who represented something of the old world and was the ‘living’ embodiment of the corruption that befell it, is omitted altogether – thus taking from the story one of the more personal elements in it. Similarly, the emergence of a new society is represented in another way.
In the book Neville was battling to survive, and as part of that he embarked on two courses of action. One was to find an explanation and possible cure for the plague – this is retained in the movie. The other was a crusade to rid his life of the undead. He would go out and hunt them down while they slept in the daylight hours, killing them with a stake to the body. This is left out, and it is a crucial omission.
Perhaps it’s not fashionable these days to show such cold blooded butchery – vampires are people too, after all. But by taking this element from the movie the whole original meaning of the title is rendered meaningless.
In the Hollywood version Neville finally discovers a cure just as he is about to die – typically Hollywood really. This becomes the very anodyne reason why he is described as legend. The cure is taken to some secure enclave in the hills where presumably society is reborn and everyone eventually lives happily ever after. Very unsatisfactory, and pretty phony.
In the book Neville is captured by the undead members of a new and evolving society. He has recognised already that his time is up. For all his striving he is part of dying breed, the last of them. For better or worse he will die and this new society will go on. He is hated, feared, he looks out the window at the rows of the undead waiting to see him executed. They still at the sight of him. All throughout the book we see the world through Neville’s eyes, are sympathetic to him because he is one of us. He is doing battle against the monstrous vampires. Suddenly we realise that to the vampires and to the undead he is the monster. They are terrified of this man who has killed so many of their number. He is legend.