Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend is one of the best stories I’ve read recently. It concerns the last man in a post-apocalyptic world which has been decimated by a vampire-like infection, but it deals with the details of his extraordinary yet mundane existence in such a gripping fashion I didn’t want it to end. So I was cautious about the new film version. I steeled myself for the changes, and consoled myself with the fact that the trailer looked good, even if it didn’t look like the book. That was fine, I thought. The transfer between mediums can excuse a lot.
The extra background info, for instance, might be a consideration for Hollywood audiences who don’t want to jump right into the post-apocalypse trope. Robert Neville’s dog, Sam(antha), gives Will Smith something to act against, essential if we’re to know him without the benefit of narration. And New York City in ruins is inherently interesting. The film could certainly have Hollywoodized things more than they did. Essentially, we watch a surprisingly good Smith wander around the city with his dog, stuck in an endless loop of video “rentals,” zombie-hunting and a futile search for a cure. He is the only one left, but he cannot give up. Because what else would he do? It is only when someone else does show up that we see how damaged Neville really is; how far apart he has grown from “humanity,” just like the creatures he hunts. What’s entertaining about the film (and book) are the little details of execution; Neville’s daily life, his rituals, the archived television broadcasts and clipped newspaper articles. Though I was disappointed to see that Hairspray is still on Broadway in 2009.
Now, this all sounds like I’m pretty happy with the film. And I was, until about ¾ of the way through. The minute Neville shouts that there is no God, that we did this to ourselves, I knew that the film was going to have to prove him wrong—no mainstream movie in America could get away with that sort of sentiment unpunished. Indeed, the film moves from being understandably updated from the book to being a complete repudiation of Matheson’s essential, and essentially dark, point. Neville is not a legend because he is a beacon of hope to guide humanity into some promised land; he is a legend to the inhuman creatures who seek to wipe him out. Hollywood has, for once, preserved enough of the original to make my sense of betrayal that much greater.
Because for an hour, I thought someone had gotten something right. And that little beacon of hope turned out to be less real than that which Neville offers humanity. It’s almost better when I know they’ve only stolen the title and don’t have to see the travesty.