The novel I Am Legend is considered a modern horror story, the forerunner of such apocalyptic movies as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, and games/movies like Resident Evil, and yet, when you read the book, it is clearly science fiction, not horror. There are no graphic depictions of someone being dismembered, no cruel descriptions of barbaric behaviour, but rather there is a breathtaking speculative attempt to apply science to superstition.
OK, so you’ve seen the movie, but have you read the book? Unlike most movie adaptations, from the Twilight saga to Harry Potter and more recently The Hunger Games, this novel is entirely different to the movie, and that allows both to coexist quite merrily, without comparisons as to which is the better.
I Am Legend is a present day what-if scenario applied to vampires, asking the question, what if Dracula was real and vampires gained the upper hand on modern society? It was written in 1954, but you wouldn’t know it. The depiction of suburbia and the sprawling cityscape of Los Angeles reads like it was written yesterday.
Like most book-turned-movie adaptations, Will Smith’s 2007 film version of I Am Legend is a stunning visual depiction, with several carefully crafted improvements, but it lacks the sense of depth you find in the novel. Although the movie is true to the character of Neville, and his fits of rage and sense of despair, the science portion of this work of science fiction is lost. Sure, Will Smith is a scientist, he has a lab with test-tubes and conducts experiments, but the movie is missing the depth of reasoning you find in the novel. And it’s the scientific rationale, the inquiring mind, the rational thinking that makes I Am Legend a sensational novel. We see some depth of consideration given to all the various facets of the vampire mythology. Why are vampires repelled by garlic? Why does a stake through the chest kill them when bullets don’t. Why are they frightened by the sign of the cross? And we get to watch as Neville exercises his reason to explore the various possibilities in a plausible manner.
The only criticism I have of this novel is the speed with which the conclusion comes about. The tension grows, the sense of interest grows, the curiosity grows, and then suddenly there’s a rush to close out the story. Given Richard Matheson‘s depth of writing and the amount of material he had to explore, I suspect there is much more than could be made of the ending, and yet, there was only ever one way it could end. Matheson knows that and so does the reader.
If you’re looking for some great reading material, I highly recommend I Am Legend, as eBooks go, it is absurdly expensive, so you might want to pick up a second-hand paperback copy from Amazon and save yourself a few bucks. If you’re really brave, try the audio version at night, alone.
PS. If you’ve seen the movie, but haven’t seen the original ending to the movie, it is well worth watching. Personally, I think they spoilt the movie by giving us the sanitized, and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after ending instead of this gritty, real-world ending that differs from the book, but is in much the same spirit.