I am preaching tomorrow on the topic, “It is not Good for Man to be Alone” (Gen 2:18). I have decided to use Robert Neville from I Am Legend as the starting point. I Am Legend took on a new significance in 2011 with the outbreak of H1N1 in 2011, fuelling conspiracy theories and providing teachers like me with great material for the classroom. Like then, thoughts of plagues, death, and social breakdown bother our minds–and the fact that New York City is contagion ground zero in the film and one of today’s COVID-19 hotspots is not insignificant. There are some differences, though.
In 2011, the conversation about I Am Legend and H1N1 was about the limits of human science. Today, the mythic relevance of the film takes a new shape–a shape that I think helps restore one of the beauties of Richard Matheson’s original novella. I have argued here that we should not be driven by fear or tempted by conspiracy theories in the face of COVID-19. I remain convinced of this stance. But other perils have grown in our world, not least of which is the peril of isolation. “It is not Good for Man to be Alone” is a good description of the main theme of I Am Legend in book and in adaptation. However, in this area, the book is stronger than the film–though the film really offers us more hope for our current moment. I thought, then, it was worth returning to this 2016 post.
- “The book was a richer experience.”
- “The film adaptation was not faithful to the book.”
It is rare that I hear a true book-lover say that the film was better than the book, but I’m sure we can find exceptions. Someone mentioned The Princess Bride to me lately, and I agree that the film has it hands down. I am both a book-lover and a film buff, so I am open to the idea that a film might be better than the book. Some people, of course, never feel a film shows fidelity to the original author. The arguments around Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth adaptations, where there is both heat and light, shows a number of dividing lines. My solution to go around the problem—I got in a bit of trouble here—doesn’t take away from the fact that I think the books are far better than the films, even if I am a big fan of the LOTR trilogy on screen.
With I Am Legend we have an intriguing opportunity to compare book and film. The book is important historically, though without the 2007 adaptation starring Will Smith, contemporary readers wouldn’t bump into it in an airport bookstore. As a 2007 adaptation, I Am Legend has the advantage of being a story tested by time, and yet not so well known that there will be an angry fan base. It was adapted twice before—including The Omega Man starring Rosalind Cash and Charlton Heston—so the filmmakers could witness the flexibility of the original story to be adapted to certain times and places.
It is also interesting that the book and the movie take a similar amount of time to experience, the book being a novella that you can read in 3-4 hours. Usually in an adaptation the book has the luxury of time, allowing the reader to sink into the story, to fill their imagination with the depth of that fictional world. In this case, the book is relatively thin on both time and detail, so the pacing is more like an episodic film. In this case, the novella has a relatively flat storyline with moments of intensity that might be an episode of violent encounter, or a moment of the protagonist’s emotional collapse. In this way, it is very much like any Lone Survivor type film.
One advantage of any book is reader investment, so that the reader provides most of the imaginative detail about landscape, scene, facial features, body posture, and the like. Film has its advantages too, so that I am much more frequently emotionally overwhelmed by the human interaction in a film. We have started watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and my wife says I’m leaning forward and nodding as Eleven searches for something to say. Add the soundtrack, the elastic snap of suspenseful action coming into play, the modulation of sound and light, and film has a great pull on its audience. In the case of the 2007 I Am Legend, the post-apocalyptic environment is captured in just a few stunning seconds, while it takes the 1954 novella pages and pages to establish the environment.
Still, for people who love literature, there is nothing like 10-20 hours (or more) of being lost in the interior mind of a character or the adventures of a world that is not our own, all told in beautiful prose. Films have their epic moments of poetry, but the genre is such that rarely can the words do the work without the support of movement and music. Poetry, however, is on many pages. It is the limitation of the mode of film, but also its great strength. I rarely cry reading books, but I cry all the time in film. I do laugh in both.
As it stands, the book and the film are two quite different experiences. I Am Legend in print is all about interiority—the feelings and emotions of Robert Neville as he struggles to be the last man on earth. Both the film and the book make a statement that undercuts our confidence in how we made the civilization we live in, but that critique is far stronger in the book. The film undercuts the confidence of our scientific progress, while the book has a cold war background (much like Night of the Living Dead in the late 60s).
While the film also deals with interiority—Will Smith’s mental collapse is pretty well done—we feel it more keenly in the book. Moreover, in the film all of the players around protagonist Robert Neville shift to create a different kind of story. The 2007 film is about disintegration and redemption, while the 1954 novel is only about disintegration. There is no recovery in Richard Matheson’s original invention, whereas the film weaves that recovery into its very core.
This recovery happens in various ways and plays out differently depending upon the ending you choose to watch. In the alternative ending, the director plays out the theme of scientific hubris. Robert Neville’s scientific pride makes the social formation of the zombie clans invisible, leading to near utter destruction. His humility—his ability to see the human within the animal—opens up for a moment of redemption. But that recovery only comes at great cost, and only by the grace of the beast. The moment of driving off into the sunrise is just a little too clean. This ending is weaker, though it is an intriguing message.
The theatrical ending is a much stronger moment of recovery, and a much more shocking interpretation of Matheson’s work. The theatrical version takes up the Christ myth, so that self-sacrifice is the central turning moment of humanity, and “healing is in the blood.” This cross-shaped narrative is strengthened by the use of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and gives substance to the Elijah character in the film, the prophetess that leads to Robert Neville’s personal redemption.
While the theatrical version is far stronger, in either case, the 2007 film is quite a distance from the book. When asked about what the central metaphor in his story was, Matheson answered bluntly:
“I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly…. I don’t think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires.”
The symbolic value of the 2007 theatrical ending is too specific to be accidental. In any case, recovery is not part of the original story, while central to the film.
We have an intriguing problem with comparing the book and film. The 1956 I Am Legend book is a vampire story inspired by Dracula; 50 years later the film is about zombies. And yet the core characteristics of the nightwalkers in the 2007 film are relatively true to one strand of what we see in the 1950s story. How does this happen?
It’s an intriguing moment of the complexity of influences. While there have been Haitian zombie stories since the 1800s, and classic zombie films from the 30s onward, it is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead that created an established zombie film genre that exists in strength right up to today. Among Romero’s influences was Matheson’s 1950s vampire story, where the vampires lack the superhuman strength of Dracula type vampires, and so hang around living beings at night waiting to drink their blood. Matheson’s story, and the 1964 Last Man on Earth adaptation, have this same weak, unintelligent night vampire hunter. This figure only works in a plague scenario, and might have been bound to die except that Romero took up the character. He linked it with the zombie narrative, set it in an historical setting that incited fear, and upped the amount of gore the audience gets to see. It’s a genius move that makes Night of the Living Dead a cult classic.
While there are two kinds of zombies in the 1954 story —the living and the dead—the 2007 film simplifies that technical point into social hierarchy and adds a factor that Matheson’s original story was missing: speed and strength. The swarm ability of zombies is part of the classic tale, and Matheson’s vampires could work together on basic tasks (as Neville discovers too in the 2007 film). In the book, there are moments where Neville is swarmed by the nightwalkers, but he is able to fight them off, create some space, and escape.
In the 2007 film, the speed and lithe bodily energy of the vampire-zombies increase the action and the thrilling elements in the film. I think it is a core problem in the Matheson tale: Robert Neville, if he keeps his head and his routine, is never truly in danger once he has set up the safe house. Neville in the film needs the safe house and the routine, but dangers lurk in much more imminent ways.
I say “problem,” but Matheson was really doing something different in the book. In Matheson’s script, Neville’s greatest danger is himself, and that principle remains true to the end of the story. That element is there in the Will Smith version, but the way they re-cast the dog shows the brilliance of film as a mode—Neville is able to talk to the dog, so isn’t just thinking all the time. This also shows the completely different kind of challenge he has to face. In both the book and the film the hunt for the scientific secret is there, but that search operates in two different ways.
That search also results in two completely different kinds of approaches to the ending. This difference makes a fascinating case study in adaptation.
So comparing the film(s) and the book makes for an interesting study, but we still have our first question: is the film better than the book?
In this case, I am going to go for the theatrical version of the film over the book. I like the complexity of the symbolism, and am intrigued about it. I think the casting is strong, and the soundtrack is a good background to the story—something Matheson also achieves in the book (listen to the pieces he mentions while you read and you’ll see). The writing of the original tale is not elegant, and as someone tempted to that interior collapse as a story I find it a bit self-indulgent. I know how I would be in grief for the loss of my world, my loves, and I resist writing it. Matheson did that here. And although it is an inescapably compelling tale, I still connected more to Robert Neville on the screen than Robert Neville in the pages.
I’m sure this won’t settle the question of whether or not a film adaptation can be better than the book. Some may say that Francis Lawrence’s “redemption” motif is a Hollywood sell-out, and there are flaws in the film. Still, though Richard Matheson’s story is more important piece in the development of a genre—both the evolution of vampire fiction and the popularizing of the zombie film—the 2007 I Am Legend film is for me a richer “reading” experience.