Monday, October 20, 2008

Manic Monday Apocalypso: I Am Legend

Omega Man, part of the Charlton Heston apocalyptic trilogy (along with Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes) was a regular fixture on TV when I was a kid. (Apes was, too, but not Soylent Green which, I suppose, is the weakest of the three.)

Of course, probably around the time I was 11-12 I had familiarized myself with the name of Richard Matheson, the author of "I Am Legend", the story on which the movie was based. Not too long ago, I saw the Vincent Price version--the original movie take, which is rather talky and low-budget. And then a week or so ago, I saw the big budget Will Smith movie which, like most of Mr. Smiths' movies, relies heavily on his own charm to keep it watchable.

So I figured it was high time to read the book and ordered it up off one of Amazon's sellers that uses their shipping. (That's great because not only do you get a low price, you don't have to pay for shipping if you have Amazon's $79/year shipping deal.) It's a novella, 150 pages long, and perhaps surprisingly, a very introspective work. (Not that surprising, though: Matheson has always had a talent for getting inside of his characters heads extensively without dragging the action down.)

The story concerns Robert Neville, the last man on earth. Vampires have taken over the world and Neville is, for some reason, immune. He spends his nights barricaded inside his house while the vampires taunt him outside. He spends his days trying to figure out what these vampires are--or killing them in their sleep.

The book is a combination of Neville's grieving, his attempts to put this vampirism into a comprehensible form. When the book opens, we discover that the vampires: can't come out in the day, are allergic to garlic, are repulsed by mirrors and holy symbols, and can only be killed with a stake through the heart.

Neville's transformation from grief-stricken husband and father to remorseless killing machine is interesting and, unlike the movie versions, you're left wanting more at the end of the 150 pages.

Of the three movies, each captures a different part of the story. The first one, the Vincent Price Last Man on Earth, captures the sort-of claustrophobia of the story: Not of space, but of mobility. (Wherever Neville goes, he has to be back well before dark.) But it doesn't deliver on the intensity.

Charlton Heston's Neville in Omega Man best captures the feel of being the only normal one in an abnormal world. This is paralleled with the counter-culture movement, of course, and so can feel pretty dated on modern viewings.

The latest I Am Legend, the first to use the real title, is more conventionally an action film with the prequesite explosion ending required of summer blockbusters. Smith does the grieving father well, and a captures a little bit of the book Neville's sociopathy.

But Smith is, in a big sense, the problem with the new version: No one's going to waste an opportunity by putting him in a faithful adapation of the original story. Ultimately, "I Am Legend" is a horror story and trucks in that genre's nihilism. What makes for a great ending on pulp isn't necessasrily going to work on celluloid--and certainly isn't going to be a crowd-pleaser.

Thus we have extremely inhuman vampires--animalistic vampires, really, and while we're at it, we won't call them vampires at all. (The novella's distinction between types of vampires--central to its story--is non-existent.) Any humanity has to be removed, or we might lose sympathy for Smith.

As I pointed out in my Dark Knight review, a lot of the best Batman stories were low-key mysteries, but there was zero chance of WB releasing a movie that reflected on that aspect of the Caped Crusader. "I Am Legend" is probably a victim of its own success in that regard, too: Nobody wants to see it as the brooding intimate horror that it is, so we'll probably never see a really faithful adaptation.

Matheson is said (by various sources) to have helped with the first screenplay, or not, and the third screenplay (though he has no credit). Worse than not being faithful, however, is that all the changes serve to make the whole thing a blander experience, particularly in the most recent iteration. The monsters look generic, however well done the CGI is. And the ending is a perversion of the story, the very thing that gives it its punch is gone.

But then, we always have the story to read.

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