LSD @ THE MOVIES
#3: I AM LEGEND: REAL VS REEL
By MIKEY LEE RAY
Copyright 2016 by MIKEY LEE RAY
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I AM LEGEND REAL VS REEL
I first heard about the book I Am Legend from a friend in 1998 as I was doing a writing course, he was a fan of both science fiction and horror. I Am Legend the novel was first written and published in 1954 by the author Richard Matheson whom Stephen King acknowledges as an inspiration to him and who Ray Bradbury (author of Fahrenheit 451) describes as being one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.
I’m going to keep this review and comparison short because as much as I’d like to describe the whole story to you dear readers I feel it is something you should read and experience for yourself hence I won’t be spoiling major plot points especially the ending. Many of you know the story of I Am Legend already but for those of you who haven’t read it I highly recommend that you do. It is a classic novel in every sense of the word.
The book begins in January 1976 and our hapless narrator / protagonist Robert Neville is going through the motions, checking that everything in his house is in working order. The generators, the hothouse, the planks on the walls of his house. Perhaps this behavior is normal for someone who lives in an area prone to natural disasters, say something akin to ‘Tornado Alley’ in the United States. But for Neville it is part of his daily routine, his struggle to survive in a world gone totally mad for he is the last man alive as far as he knows. He is described as being 36 years of age, tall, of Anglo-German stock with blue eyes and lanky blonde hair. He is relatively muscular because he does a lot of work with his hands but he’s not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger either. He listens to classical music on his record player, from Beethoven, Ravel and others.
The story takes place in a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles and Neville himself lives on Cimarron Street though in his daily venturings out he travels sometimes through Compton and Inglewood to get supplies from stores and what not. We know little about his profession except that he works at a plant of some sort and he seems like a typical blue collar worker, though not from a scientific background Robert Neville turns to books and to libraries for answers to the cause of the plague.
I Am Legend fuses elements of both the horror and science fiction genres seamlessly and effortlessly, on the one hand you have these terrifying vampires waiting outside Robert Neville’s house calling for him to come out every night and on the other you have Neville’s scientific inquiries into what made them what they are. He studies bacteria, he studies blood and the human nervous system, trying to understand the myths behind the vampire legend. Why does garlic work, why do stakes work, what about crosses and so on.
What makes the creatures so fearful to both Neville and the reader is that there is so much humanity left in them, they remember Neville for they are his neighbors and one is his former co-worker Ben Cortman and they call out to him every night to come out of his house and put an end to it. He does get tempted at times, questioning his sanity, his faith, his loneliness and he smokes and drinks to excess to make it through the hard days and nights especially.
What I think really works well and shines through in this short 160 page book is the isolation and claustrophobia you feel as you see the world through this unique character’s eyes. It’s as if the whole world is closing in on you as you read through his daily trials and tribulations. I think it’s also a testament to the strength of the narrator and the compelling nature of his inner monologue and thoughts that he can keep the book going in such a small world and such a closed off environment. He does venture out at times but most of the book is confined to either Neville’s house or the surrounding neighborhood and wherever he can get to in time in his trusty station wagon. He’s limited because he must get back to the safety of his house before nightfall when the Vampires come to surround him once more.
And yet as dark as the world gets around him, as the plague worsens and he realizes he is the only one left he never contemplates the easy way out, never considers suicide at all. He is still self destructive with his smoking and drinking though and also clearly conflicted about other things as well.
As Neville tries to find out what makes the vampires tick he begins experiments on the ones he finds sleeping during the day and comes to some startling conclusions. Along the way there are some twists and the ending turns Neville’s whole world and perspective upside down. I think it’s potentially one of the best endings to a book I’ve ever read quite frankly. No, I’m not going to spoil it except to say that in the end I Am Legend both earns and lives up to its title. The book is a MUST READ most definitely, Robert Neville is a complex, conflicted character who you can’t help empathizing with because if we’re honest with ourselves there are times when we all feel like we’re fighting a losing battle with something.
It being the 1970s the book does touch on the issue of religious extremism as Neville is literally dragged to a Revival meeting where people chant, clap, shout Amen and pray for God to save them from the plague and the Vampires. Their unerring blind faith makes an interesting contrast to Neville’s scientific approach and inquiries as he tries to discover what makes the creatures around him tick and what caused the plague as well as the dust storms that ravaged his neighborhood.
Now, on to the film and where to begin? The latest incarnation of I Am Legend films came out in 2007, was directed by Francis Lawrence and starred Will Smith. Of course, because who else are you going to get to play a 36 year old man of Anglo-German stock with blonde hair and blue eyes? Right from the opening shots we see that the director has taken one look at the book and plagiarized the overall theme while not staying one bit true to the actual source material. For one thing, Will Smith is cruising down a deserted road in a flashy sports car and for another the film is set in New York not Los Angeles and the year is 2009 then 2012 as opposed to 1975 through 1979 in the original book. Rather than the closed off and claustrophobic view of the world we get through Matheson’s chilling book here through lazy directing and long shots of an empty city, the film feels entirely different in a visual sense.
Also to make things convenient for the plot Will Smith’s Robert Neville is both a virologist and connected to the military. It doesn’t make him more likeable at least in my eyes, it just makes the situation more unbelievable. The book’s protagonist was so easy to relate to because he was an every man, trying to survive in a world that is both literally and metaphorically falling apart.
But hell this is Will Smith we’re talking about. He doesn’t play the every man, he plays HEROES, hence all his cop buddy films and flicks such as Independence Day.
Simply put he is not the man for the job and I’m not just talking about his skin color but the fact that he is nothing like the Robert Neville in Richard Matheson’s book. He doesn’t even listen to classical music in the film, he instead only listens to Bob Marley and reggae music, at times singing “every little thing is going to be all right.” He’s not a man struggling to keep his sanity, he is instead in the film quite frankly utterly delusional. Rather than even deal with the issues of isolation Smith’s character is joined from the very beginning by a dog whom he is always talking to and he also sets up mannequins in his local video store so he can talk to them. At one point when one doesn’t ‘answer’ him he starts to almost cry and seems to break down.
In another scene when one of the creatures moves one of his mannequins he begins talking to it by name and shoots it with a machine gun, telling him he didn’t want it to come to that. It’s really appalling acting from a mainstream actor who lacks real emotional depth or the ability for true introspection in such a classic role as Robert Neville is.
Rather than have Will Smith talking to the dog all the time and his stupid mannequins it would’ve been much better if he’d just had some voiceovers and internal dialogue to express his isolation but everything in film has to be dumbed down, simplified and expressed in literal form. It doesn’t bother to look into the character’s mind, everything including his isolation and loneliness has to be shown on the surface which is just poor.
As well as this the other major faux pas is that Will Smith is always talking to himself and recording himself on the computer as he tries to find a cure, Robert Neville just wanted to find out what made his enemies, the Vampires tick.
I feel as if there was very little actual science in the book, as if the director has dropped most of the science fiction elements and instead just gone for the easy route of cheap horror with very ordinary computer generated (CG) special effects. What made the Vampires terrifying in the book was the fact that they used to be human, that they knew Robert Neville and night after night they taunt him to come out of the house.
In the film however, there is very little explanation as to what the creatures are and they are simply referred to as ‘Dark Seekers’ about an hour into the film. There is a rather clichéd explanation at the beginning involving a cure for cancer that goes wrong, an even more clichéd evacuation flashback scene involving the military that also goes wrong. Given other films like 28 Days Later and others of its nature you’d think Francis Lawrence would stick more to the original source material because it is more original both then and now then what he opts for.
There is also a scene in which Will Smith quotes a whole bunch of dialogue from the animated movie Shrek for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just terrible.
If you haven’t seen the film then I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that it was clichéd, with atrocious acting from Will Smith and the last scene felt almost like something out of a Disney film for Tyler’s sake. Just. Awful. It ruins the title of the book, it certainly doesn’t live up to its name. But what do I know? After all the film won critical acclaim and made 585 million bucks at the box office, so clearly people enjoyed it. I hated it not because I hate Will Smith or the director but because they changed ninety nine percent of the story and chose to cash in on the well known title of the book alone and because it worked, thus proving the gullibility of most people. There was talk of a prequel but luckily for us it never was produced. I hope that if Hollywood makes another film out of it they will actually be more faithful to the original source material this time and show the author the respect that he deserves for once. You can change the future of Hollywood by doing one simple thing when these types of films come out. READ THE BOOK. Know the source material and you won’t be fooled by this type of crap again. Well dear readers I hope you’ve enjoyed this little comparison, if you have please leave some comments and we’ll see you next time at the movies. Also on a closing note if you feel there is a book / movie adaptation comparison you’d like us to discuss please comment on it in the review section and we will be happy to oblige you.
This is an article that discusses Richard Matheson's classic and inspirational novel I Am Legend and compares it with the latest film version / adaptation which was released in 2007. DOES NOT CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS so if you haven't read the book or seen the film then I highly recommend you read this article.