I Am Legend

Monday January 21, 2008 in books read 2008 | science fiction

4 Stars

Written in 1954, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend was first filmed as The Omega Man in 1971. It starred Charlton Heston, a reasonable choice for the lead coming only a few years after his success in the post apocalyptic Planet of the Apes. In the early 1990s a new version was touted starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Again, not surprising when you looked at his CV, although this film was, perhaps thankfullly, never made. I Am Legend has eventually returned to the cinema starring Will Smith. Not my first choice (Nicolas Cage springs to mind for such a role, even Daniel Craig), although I’ll refrain from commenting further until I’ve seen the film.

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

In the great family tree of horror and sci-fi, it’s not difficult to trace countless books and films back to I Am Legend. Matheson’s future not only concerns an empty city after a deadly plague has killed off most of the population, but also features some of the (un)lucky survivors now doing their night to night business as vampires. Translate vampire into zombie and you have the blueprint for Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and many others. But a blueprint doesn’t necessarily make a good novel, so is I Am Legend any good? Well I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was great literature but it is a very, very good book indeed…

Robert Neville lives alone in his customised home; he can generate his own electricity to keep his stock of frozen food fresh. He spends his hours making tools, especially wooden stakes. Time is something he has a lot of because, more or less, he’s the last man on Earth. Occasionally Robert Neville drinks. He drinks a lot, but we can forgive him for that as every night a troop of vampires call on him. He locks himself in his house, often fighting them off. During the day, when his enemies sleep, he seeks them out to destroy them and seeks further for a cure to the madness.

What lifts I Am Legend above the usual horror tale is the Robinson Crusoe slant Matheson manages to put on it. Neville slowly comes to terms with his isolation, becoming increasingly resourceful in his survival. His loneliness begins to tip him into an indifference towards his previous role in society and humanity, and as well as Crusoe this novel also acknowledges Gulliver’s Travels as a reference point. When Neville eventually does encounter another seemingly real human, his reaction is far from ecstatic.

Matheson is careful not to slip into too much explanatory prose. I really didn’t want to know what had caused the catastrophe leaving Neville as the last man on Earth, and I became uncomfortable when he begins to delve into some reasoning behind the vampires presence. But he doesn’t become too bogged down. The silly science is kept under leash, leaving some quite moving passages in the book to stand out. Especially good is the part when Neville attempts to coax a stray dog into his world, a sad episode that leads neatly into his encounter with a real – perhaps – human visitor.

I’m tempted to see the latest cinema treatment now – although it will have to be pretty good to surpass this clever and timeless novel.

if you’re looking for a film review might I recommend blogger Tony Pugh: here’s his one for I am Legend, entitled one man and his dog

JackP    Tuesday January 22, 2008   

I’ll have a nose – good film blogs are few and far between.

The Book Tower    Tuesday January 22, 2008   

I re-read this book on holiday in 2006, having read it for the first time many years ago. I am not sure why I read it again, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, as I never usually read sci fi or horror. Very well written, I thought – no redundancy, and surprisingly emotional in a spare kind of way. I asked my daughter if she would like to read it but she refused because of the cover picture (same edition as the one you have pictured in your post).

Maxine    Tuesday January 22, 2008   

This is the edition that I’ve left lying around at home, and it’s difficult with a cover like that to convince anyone that it’s a book with any merit and not just an out and out horror!

The Book Tower    Tuesday January 22, 2008   

I read this last week and then went to see the movie this week. Boy was I disappointed with the movie. It’s a remake of The Omega Man rather than an adaptation of I Am Legend and therefore shouldn’t have bore the name of the book, especially when rather than go with what the novel is about, they shoehorn in their own explanation for the legend part. In effect, the only major similarity between the two is that Neville is the last man on Earth.

As regards movie blogs, let me point you in the direction of a friends:


Stewart    Friday January 25, 2008   

Thanks for the link. Another movie blog. Cool!

I had a feeling the new film would be a remake of The Omega Man. Makes me want to seek out the 1971 Charlton Heston version again rather than see another one.

The Book Tower    Friday January 25, 2008   

I’ve seen the movie ads but I wasn’t sure what the story was about so I appreciate your review. Thanks!

Carrie (Reading to Know)    Saturday January 26, 2008   

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