I Am Legend: novel v. films

As I was pursuing my writing degree, I wrote essay after essay. The following piece was written for Literature in Film class. I used the book I am Legend by Richard Matheson and the movie translations to compare and contrast how the story is told. I use specific examples from the novel and movies.

21 March 2017

People often attend the movie theater hoping to see a perfect representation of their favorite books; however, a perfect representation of any source text does not exist. Many ideas, from the author to the director to the actors, become the base for a successful film. Richard Matheson’s, “I am Legend”, has become a fable of its own, being the inspiration for several stories and films throughout the years. Matheson’s work follows Robert Neville in his fight for survival in the aftermath of vampirism. The film translations, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), “The Omega Man” (1971), and “I Am Legend” (2007), show major variations of the situations through setting, screenplay, and characterization.

Set in 1976 Los Angeles, Matheson’s story is a depressing scene: one average man fighting to understand the germ turning people into the walking dead. While the first two translations are also set in Los Angeles, “I Am Legend” takes place in New Jersey, creating a different scene for Robert Neville. The beauty of the eastern United States is well known, and seeing it destroyed creates strong feeling for the characters. The text begins with Robert unsure of whether it is day or night, wondering if he is safe, and completely dependent on his possessions and intelligence to keep him alive. “The Last Man on Earth” portrays this best: Robert in his home, getting ready for the new day. Both “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”, however, start with Robert driving a bright red sports car in the late evening.

Charleston Heston in Omega Man (1971)

This is a more daring characteristic than Robert owns in the text. When he crashes the car in “Omega Man”, he takes his pick from many other working vehicles. However, when Matheson’s character is in dire need of a car, his choices are slim. “He couldn’t walk to Santa Monica, so he had to try using the many cars parked around the neighborhood. But most of them were inoperative for one reason or another: a dead battery, a clogged fuel pump, no gasoline, flat tires” (I Am Legend, page 38). The film translations have given Robert Neville more freedom to roam without worry because he has such access to transportation. This ultimately changes Neville’s confidence. If he knows he can make it home without worry, he may be more likely to be reckless. Another possession that varied in the films was the music Neville enjoyed listening to. He listened to vinyl such as Brahm’s second piano concerto. Because the films were all set in different decades, the music was changed to best fit the time. “The Last Man on Earth”, set in 1968, also used vinyl. “I Am Legend”, set in 2007, has Neville listening to CDs, specifically to songs by Bob Marley. Marley’s biggest hits were in the late ’70s and early ’80s, possibly hinting at the time the text was set. Not only music, but movies, are also included in two of the translations. “The Omega Man” has Neville watching Woodstock, a 1970 documentary film; and “I Am Legend” displays the animated Dreamwork’s film, “Shrek”. Neville recites a lengthy scene from the film by heart. The media Neville is exposed to is what keeps him connected to the world and to his humanity.

Robert Neville goes through processes of discovery that take time and many mistakes are made. However, the film translations present his character as a highly intelligent, problem solving man. The upscale of Neville’s intelligence plays a significant role in creating a quicker story for the screen. In all three films, Neville has a lab and some from of science background that is lacking in the text. The novel’s Neville cannot tell the top from the bottom of a microscope. The 2007 translations also gives Neville a full lab, this time in his basement.

2007 I Am Legend with Will Smith

He takes infected beings and tests possible cures on them. This is not the case in the text, therefore giving the film versions of Neville a much bigger advantage in survival. While “The Last Man on Earth” makes stakes, “The Omega Man” relies highly on firearms. Neville in the most recent film creates elaborate traps to draw out specific vampires-almost as if he has a vendetta. He uses his own blood as bait. The vampires in this translation gain their own knowledge by watching Robert Neville, later creating their own similar traps. They are able to observe and are effective enough to reel him in.

The films reflect the text well in how one man living out what seems a punishment, essentially being the last person to live. However, there are some changes in the screenplay in which Neville is ultimately killed. “The Last Man on Earth”, staying as true to the text as possible, Neville is killed by a new humanistic vampire race. They wish to punish him for his crimes against them. In the end, Neville becomes the monster he believed he could destroy. References are made to Neville being crucified, giving the film a slight religious undertone. “The Omega Man” strays from this idea completely. And “I Am Legend” portrays Neville as not a monster, but the hero of his story. He gives up his own life to save the human race, which is a major variation from the source text. In the end, there is a community of people not infected, and the makings of a cure is brought to light. It is inferred that humans prevail.

“The Last Man on Earth” was not found to be the best movie during its time. Nonetheless, it introduced a new style of vampires and became the inspiration for George Romero’s, “Night of the Living Dead”. Each translation uses very different versions of the creature. Matheson originally depicted blood sucking creatures of the night. However, “The Omega Man” uses a vastly different monster. The vampires are a conversing, robe wearing cult known as The Family. They can’t stand the sun and wear thick round sunglasses upon their pale faces. Their number one goal is to get rid of Neville.

The Family from The Omega Man (1971)

They believe it is wrong for him to live. The film, “I Am Legend” contains large monsters who are nonverbal and live in dark damp places. But do not be fooled. They have more physical and mental strength than any other creature depicted.

Neville in the 2007 film is more intact with the character’s humanity. He often remembers his family and by meeting a woman and a young boy, he is pushed to become a hero, possibly because he feels the responsibility of the husband and father he once was. He has a close relationship with his dog, Sam, who was a strong part of his lost family. The loss of this relationship gives Neville even more push to find a cure. The novel as well as the other translations present the story of a lonely man. This film strays from the idea to create a more relatable character for the audience. For a novel inspired film to be deemed successful, the film must translate the story as well as be able to identify as an independent piece of work.

“The Last Man on Earth” is known as a traditional translation because it captures the text as closely as possible with some creative direction. Because the film tries to follow the source text, the pace is slow and minutes the important themes. “I Am Legend” is also a traditional translation. It is “The Omega Man” that shifts the balance as a radical translation. The vampires’ dramatic difference from the novel changes the story’s dynamic. The style used to create the film determines how the audience perceives the picture as a whole. Many shots are from a distance and very still, making you feel unconnected to the character and his situations. Other shots grow closer to the actors and more movement is involved. An actor’s effectiveness on-screen contributes to the film’s emotional output. The actors and their style of voice, body, and facial expressions creates the character we must relate to. For example, the novel’s Neville is a binge drinker. None of the films highlight this. Vincent Price is able to play Robert in a calm as well as spastic manner and did not need alcohol to reason his actions. Charleston Heston portrays a much more physically inclined Robert and uses that to his advantage. Will Smith is the most emotional portrayal.

I Am Legend
Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007)

His facial expressions allow us to feel what he feels. He has the ability to bring the audience inside the story. Connecting to the audience on an emotional level can make astronomical difference in a film’s success.

In conclusion, each film brings a different story using Matheson as inspiration. The situations are exciting and nail biting; whereas, the text tells the story from a distance and with little deep emotions. Big film productions must allow different directions if it means the film will be more entertaining and worth the cost to make it. Each film tells a unique story that will continue to be told and will always be legendary.

Works Cited

Lawrence, Francis, director. I Am Legend. 2007.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York, NY, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995.

Ragona, Ubaldo and Sydney Salkow, directors. The Last Man on Earth. 1964.

Sagal, Boris, director. The Omega Man. 1971.

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