Will ‘I Am Legend’ Dissapoint Fans of Matheson’s Book?

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So I quickly read “I Am Legend” over the weekend (buy it here) in anticipation of seeing the film tonight and I figured I should write this article before seeing the film as opposed to afterwards just so I wouldn’t be able to ruin the film for anyone. Of course the only drawback is that I will be making assumptions about the film since I have not seen it, but I think it is safe to say that most of my assumptions will be spot on.

Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 short story is light years ahead of its time. To imagine this story was written 53 years ago is shocking to the say the very least. There is nothing dated about the prose and it reads as if it could be talking about the year 1954 or 2007. The story is part of a collection of short stories, “I Am Legend” being the longest of the bunch, but the rest, though much shorter, are equally entertaining and quick reads you are sure to enjoy. Once again, buy it here.

Unfortunately, for anyone that has read the story and then seen even a single second of the promotion for this film or even a picture of the clean cut hero Will Smith strutting along the streets of New York City with his dog already know that the book they love has not been brought to the big screen. Let’s take a quick preview of the trailer:

Okay, let’s see… You saw:

  1. A horde of people being evacuated
  2. Missiles hitting a bridge
  3. Robert Neville (Will Smith) broadcasting a radio message looking for other survivors
  4. Neville has a dog
  5. A chiseled Neville working out with his dog
  6. Neville golfing off a Stealth bomber
  7. Neville says, “God didn’t do this, we did.”
  8. Explosions galore

Of those eight details that make up the trailer not a single one of them happens in the book.

The synopsis tells us…

  1. Robert Neville is a brilliant scientist.
  2. Neville could not contain the terrible virus that was unstoppable, incurable, and man-made.

In the book he isn’t a scientist and the virus isn’t man-made… at least it isn’t revealed to be man-made as Neville has his own conclusions as to where it came from after three years of research. In the book Neville works at an undefined “plant” in California, and he is not living in New York City. In the book Neville is initially at a complete loss as to what has happened and flashbacks tell us how he lost his wife and daughter (terribly tragic stories that would have been amazing on film). He is an alcoholic struggling to get through each day as each night he looks out at the streets as hordes of the infected stare at his house, which is guarded by mirrors, garlic and crucifixes.

These are just opening story details however, just as is the description of Neville given to us by Matheson. Now I am not one that cares a lick whether an individual portrayed in a film matches the race requirements set forth by the original author, but you tell me if any of the original description given by Matheson matches the image of Will Smith below:

“He walked around the house in the dull grey afternoon, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trailing threadlike smoke over his shoulder.

“He was a tall man, thirty-six, born of English-German stock, his features undistinguished except for the long, determined mouth and the bright blue of his eyes…

“He looked up and down Cimarron Street, the cool breeze ruffling his blond hair.

“An evenly paced hermit life had increased his weight to 230 pounds. His face was full, his body broad and muscular underneath the loose-fitting denim he wore. He had long before given up shaving. Only rarely did he crop his thick blond beard, so that it remained two to three inches from his skin. His hair was thinning and was long and straggly.”

I don’t mind that he doesn’t have blond hair or blue eyes. However, he has no hair and he doesn’t have a beard. The image of the Neville from the book along with the entire tone of the book seems to have been abandoned for this “adaptation” if we can even call it that. Oddly enough this isn’t the first time Matheson’s novel has been used as the source material for a feature film. Vincent Price used it for The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston used it for The Omega Man. While I have not seen either of those films, it wouldn’t bother me in the least if they deviated from the source material, because they aren’t using the source material in the title while claiming to have adapted it.

Do you know how weird it is to see Will Smith on the cover of a book called “I Am Legend” as the hero of the story only to open up the book and read that the guy is an alcoholic smoker of English-German descent with blond hair, a scraggly beard and blue eyes? It throws you for a second and makes it hard to read at first because you have to push everything you have seen in Warner Bros.’ attempts to market this film out of your mind.

What is even more shocking is that the director of this movie is Francis Lawrence, the guy that made Constantine. I am someone that loved Constantine and think Lawrence was the perfect choice to make this movie, unfortunately Lawrence is an excellent choice to make a movie directly adapted from the book, not whatever the hell scripters Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich have come up with. Lawrence’s vision of John Constantine more closely mirrors my expectations for a Robert Neville much more than Will Smith does.

After reading Ed Douglas’ review of the film here there is one thing that would have saved this film for me, and that would have been an ending that mirrored Matheson’s. I picture a cold voice-over reading; fade to black; first reveal of the titles “I Am Legend”; and credits with absolutely no music behind them. Douglas describes the ending saying, “[Leading] to a disappointing ending that stays in line with Matheson’s novel, but then ruins it with one of those Terminator 2 voice-overs that tells us that everything will be alright.”

Uh, voice over? Who the hell is reading the voice over?

It appears I Am Legend has been given the Hollywood treatment, but as I said I have not yet seen it and tonight will be able to judge for myself. Unfortunately everything I have read and seen to this point leads me to believe the story I just read is not what I should expect, not even in the slightest. Hell, the only clip I saw even remotely entertaining is not even in the book. The mere fact Neville is holding a machine gun and traveling with that dog destroys everything the book intended.

I understand books can pretty much never be directly translated to the screen, but you don’t need to completely change everything and still keep the same fucking title. What is that? Why don’t I go make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and set it in Iraq with Harry, Hermione and Ron chasing Voldemort as he hides in caves while the Death Eaters attack London?

Matheson’s book directly translated to the screen would have been one hell of a film, and under the proper direction would have been a top ten worthy film. Instead it looks like I Am Legend in all its PG-13 glory is going to be nothing more than a bastardization of a 53-year-old story and ruin any chance of ever getting a direct adaptation any time soon.

HOWEVER, none of this means the movie won’t be good, I just don’t think it looks like it is an adaptation of Matheson’s book in as much as it was inspired by the novel. Here’s to hoping it is worth our time.

To get a copy of “I Am Legend” for yourself you can buy it from Amazon right here. The film hits theaters this Friday and I will be back with my review as soon as I can.