Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Legend Four Times and Counting

By Mike Gillis

"I Am Legend" was one of the first books that moved me to tears. That's something I wasn't willing to admit to anyone in my early adolescent years, not only because of my age, but because no one should shed tears reading a vampire novel, so I thought.

If you're not familiar with the author, Richard Matheson, he's best known for some his TV and film work on shows like The Twlight Zone and the screenplay for "Duel" but also for novels like "The Shrinking Man" and "Bid Time Return," which was later filmed as "Somewhere in Time" with Christopher Reeve.

Matheson's prose is lean and rich. The fantastic elements are often firmly grounded in simple empiricism, not so much science fiction as psychological. And deeply character driven.

That goes for "I Am Legend." It's the story of a man, Robert Neville, in the not-so-distant future of 1974 (it was written in 1954) who is the world's lone survivor. A plague has stricken the rest of the population, a disease that mimics vampirism. Matheson's novel doesn't deal as much with the horrific state of the world, at least initially, but instead on Neville's mad quest to maintain a normal life. Each day, when the plague's victims are hidden away in the dark, Neville ventures out, first clearing his lawn of bodies and then hitting the streets to collect what he needs to survive. He travels with his dog and it is a scene involving the two that I cried. I won't spoil it here -- and don't even recall all of the details-- should you want to seek out the book.

Of course, the story takes another turn, and Neville discovers there is more to the plague than he knew. That discovery eventually leads us to the book's title.

Many of Matheson's works have been adapted for film, and "I Am Legend" is no exception. The first version is "The Last Man on Earth," starring Vincent Price. It's not a great picture, but has a few, if not clumsy, moments of inspiration. Matheson wrote the screenplay, but later asked that his name be stripped from the credits after substantial changes were made. You can see the film in its entirety at the end of this post.

The book was adapted again in 1971 as "The Omega Man," starring Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe. A more memorable film, "The Omega Man" deviates further from the book, shedding the vampires.

And so, Ridley Scott looked to do the book justice in the 1990s, but that project collapsed under the weight of its budget. A smaller-scale effort was mounted by Rob Bowman of X-Files fame, but that, too, lost its traction.

Which brings us to the upcoming big screen incarnation, "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith.

I have to admit, I have low expectations. I really only know two things about this picture: The filmmakers have gone out of their way to say this is not a vampire movie and that it boasts one of the most expensive scenes ever filmed (people fleeing New York across the Brooklyn Bridge).

If the trailer is any indication, the filmmakers and studio are banking on Smith, whom I generally like, to sell the picture as an end-of-the-world epic. Big star. Bigger sets. Bigger shots. The biggest effects.

How is that we've ventured so far from a little book, a novella, that charts the collapse of mankind through one man's story? After the sequels, what's next? "I Am More of a Legend?"

Thankfully, Matheson's library is still thick with stories and novels not yet devoured by Hollywood. Perhaps there's still hope.

And you never know who will remake "I Am Legend" the next time around.


See the "I Am Legend" trailer:

Watch "The Last Man on Earth" here: