Thursday, October 15, 2009

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend

My recent first time visit to the West Hollywood Book Fair, a couple of weeks back, seemed to re-ignite my interest in author Richard Matheson's seminal novel (an intriguing mix of horror and sci-fi) on vampire mythology in the modern world. When I arrived at the fair, I first stopped at one of the comic shop booths before heading over to the initial panel (Ghost & Goblins: Exploring the Supernatural in Mystery Fiction) that featured author Charlie Huston. Among all of their wonderful comic book offerings, there was one particular graphic novel that stood out - the I Am Legend compilation of Steve Niles and Elman Brown comic series from the early 90's of the Matheson work. I'd heard of it, but I hadn't seen this adaptation in graphic form. Between looking at its terrific illustrations and seeing how the artists constructed and re-told the author's tale, it was no wonder I was late to that book panel (I was so caught up in it).

Then upon finding and reaching said panel, what were Charlie Huston and moderator Leslie Klinger discussing at that very moment? Yep. That same novel, which they then directly credited for being the impetus for much of the written work their panel was discussing that day. Alright... Synchronicity, strike two. Finally last week, Film and TV blogger John Kenneth Muir noted in a post (and directly linked to blogger B-Sol's The Vault of Horror's said list), titled The Cyber Horror Elite's Reading List: The Greatest Horror Literature of All-Time, the results from a panel of distinguished bloggers and authors listing their favorite horror lit. [and kudos to both of them for that, too.*] And what was at 15th rung? Nuff' said... strike three! I had to put something down in a post regarding this all-time great novel (and since it was published the same year I was born, 1954, let's add that coinkydink to the mix). And besides, it is now the month of Halloween. So here it is, along with some of my thoughts towards its varied adaptations.

* that top 30 list drew such an interest-piquing response, B-Sol also posted the remaining novels, short stories, and poems that did not make it onto there or the honorable mentions list.

The Book

I think the author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson ~ Stephen King
It's been over three decades since I first heard of this novel. I'd estimate I first read it during the early 1970's - and likely in response to seeing the first couple of its film adaptations. The story is about one man, Robert Neville, and his fight to survive in a world that's been decimated by a 70's viral pandemic (eerie to me then, and strangely apropos to me now). As much as he knows, he's the last uninfected man living on earth, and he's doing so among what's left of the population: the infected vampire horde wandering the Los Angeles nightscape. A couple of parallels are fairly obvious when reviewing the work. The Robinson Crusoe tale seems evident - especially when he's boarded up at night in his (desert island-like) reinforced and hardened home (with his stash of food, drink, and classical music LPs to keep him company). His Man Friday could be the seemingly uninfected woman, the biblically named Ruth, too. As well, the Cold War paranoia and fear track of the 50's permeates the tale. His story comes to light in a unique mix of flashback, science-fiction, mythological horror, and ultimate irony. The fact that Matheson imagined a world (and my hometown), some twenty years beforehand, that people even in the 21st century, upon reading it for the first time, would still recognize, proves the author was prophetically dead-on (so to speak) with this novel.

Matheson's clever use of flashbacks appears to use time (and its passage) as a interesting device in storytelling and as a tool for leveling the distance between the moment in time the reader takes it in and into the prescient world the author imagined. It's all too easy for the reader to simultaneously imagine Neville's plight of the damned, and whatever future pandemic (natural or man-made) that yet could come. It's considered the first of the modern vampire novels with its prominent use of science to explain away old vampire lore and subjugate religion's treatment and links in ancient mythology. The novel also seems so influential in so many other authors work. It's hard to imagine many of today's modern blood-sucker tales (with the intertwining vampire and humans storylines) coming about without this one novel breaking through and mixing myth and science (or our own use of standards and technology to explain things). Even George Romero's unique zombie and apocalyptic series (that began with the equally seminal Night of the Living Dead film) would seem difficult to conjure without this novel's direction and power.

Film Adaptations

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

I remember my brother telling me he'd seen this movie on some TV broadcast in the late 60's and trying to explain the story to me. What can I say? Early teen recall is not worth the hormones they are imprinted with. And it wasn't until the decade turned (a few years later) that I caught up to it on another late night showing. This Vincent Price feature, an Italian production, did have Richard Matheson write its original screenplay. But the changes and re-writes made to it had him pull his name from the film. However, it does seem to come closest to the story and spirit of the author's novel (but it suffers in its low cost production values and poor dubbing). I would say it's my sentimental favorite since it's the first telling of this story I ever saw (along with the next film) on celluloid. Additionally, these first two pushed me to actually read the book that it was based upon.
The Omega Man (1971)

This was the first film adaptation that I saw in an actual movie theater. This Charlton Heston vehicle (along with the subsequent one decades later) began to shift this tale to more of an action/sci-fi film in its execution and bearing. Gone are the plague aspects of the original work, along with the demythologized vampire text. Enter that period's introduction to the biological warfare scares as imagined by the screenwriter's adaptation in the midst of the Cold War. That, and homicidal mutants (meh). Although, the film does make great use of its L.A. setting and locations (like that originally used in the novel) - and is the only one among the film conversions to do so. Unfortunately, this film feels the most dated (hey, it's the 70's). Still, it was entertaining (as long as you let go of the superior narrative in the novel). The film's best moments are Heston being Heston (in his own inimitable way) and any of the scenes that have Rosalind Cash in them (I always admired this actress and she was never in enough movies, for my liking).
I Am Legend (2007)

This century's adaptation was the third film version, but the first to use the original title of Matheson's novel. It also returns to the concept of a viral pandemic in this re-telling. And it has two of the most charismatic performances among all of these screen adaptations. Will Smith and Alice Braga, you say? No. Will Smith and Samantha the dog (and Will was hard pressed to beat her out). [note: Ms. Braga does indeed look better than the dog, but Sam acted better] Unfortunately, the film seems to emphasize its special effects and action over the story's tenets - plus it has the worst use of CGI characters in any of the big budget, high profile film releases of late. Let alone the use of an ending (theatrical or alternate ending included on the DVD release) that seems the antithesis of the novel's. And unfortunately, it made a lot of money at the box office. So much so, the studio is preparing for something that should be abhorrent to anyone who appreciates the original book: a prequel. Coming in 2011, I Am Legend: Awakening. [don't get me started on this]


Also in 2007 (in conjunction with the late year release of the above film), the original novel was re-issued (yet again) by a book publisher. And for the first time, Blackstone Audio published an unabridged audiobook for the groundbreaking work. The high profile nature of the then upcoming film, and the importance of bringing a pioneering novel to the spoken word form, necessitated the studio managers bring out one of its big guns for this first audio treatment. Narrator Robertson Dean, he of the "sonorous, classically disciplined bass-baritone" voice, was selected. As one of my 2008
reads/listens, all I can say is it was one of the best audiobooks I heard last year. His superlative reading gave a voice to that of the character of Robert Neville that I hadn't imagined. And since it all comes from the original novel by author Richard Matheson, without abridgement or adaptation, I'd recommend it hands down to anyone who wishes to hear his legendary words and story. And this would include any of the aforementioned film versions (I'm sorry to say).

This is a masterpiece of modern fiction by one of the true pioneers of books, television and film. The man wrote novels of mystery, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and believe it or not, westerns. Name a writer's award, and he's probably won it (the Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe, Golden Spur, and the Writer's Guild awards to name a few). And if I were to pick just one of his works to be emblematic of his skill and genius at writing, I don't think I could do better than naming this novel to represent that. And, it's a pity that the film treatments of it don't really come close to the words put down over half a century ago. And since I can't do better than those words, I'll let the final ones in the novel close this post out (to hear Robertson Dean say them, click here):
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in his pain.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.
Full Disclosure for the FTC: not one bit of compensation was had during the writing of this post (sadly enough). In fact, author Richard Matheson is one of the few people I'D PAY to have his autograph. And, no animals were harmed during the making of this movie. So there!

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  1. Glad to inspire such a quality post! I'll always be partial to the original 1964 movie adaptation. I love Vincent Price, plus it directly inspired George Romero, so you have to love that.

  2. Thank you for you kind words, B-Sol. Yes, that '64 movie is the most faithful, and Vincent Price was highly unrated in his acting skills. It still makes quite an impression.

  3. Another quality post. I don't know where you find the time.

  4. Thanks, Corey. You know, I don't even think the family misses me when I disappear at night ;-).

  5. Amazing post! Most of the times you cover all that could be said about almost anything you write. Amazing, indeed!

    I haven't seen either the Heston or the Price films, nor have I read the book ('though it's now in my "To-buy-list"... and I'm actually off to the video store to get the films). I saw the Will Smith version however, and, as yourself, I was sadly disappointed by almost all the stuff you said.

    I'm an apocalyptic-zombie-vampire junkie (you might've guessed it by some of my posts). And I've found recent love for scientific(ish) explanations in world-ending epydemics. I love 28 Days Later... and found a recent excitement for Del Toro's The Strain, which I recommend for a somehow scary but easy reading (just not great literature IMHO).

    I really love your post. Somehow you manage to make my to-buy, to-read and to-watch lists grow bigger each time I read your stuff!

    (By the way... I just found out we might actually be related! My great-grandmother from my mother's side's maiden name was Alatorre, so there you go!)

  6. Thank you for your very kind words, Poncho.

    Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is one of my fav's, as well, and another great twist of the vampire/zombie genres.

    I give you the credit for telling me about Del Toro's The Strain. I now have the audiobook version (and Ron Perlman of Hellboy and Blade II fame is the narrator). As soon as I finish the current and Trigger City, I'll be taking it in.

    [and for that last bit... ¡primo! That's on my father's side; as for my mother's, any Treviño in your line?]

  7. I've never read Matheson's novel, but now I want to!

    I have seen all three versions of the story on film though and my own sentimental favorite has to be The Omega Man. I guess the version you see first will always hold a special place in your affections, and that's definitely the case with me. It was only much later that I came to the Price movie and, while I did enjoy it, it just didn't work as well for me.

    As you say, The Omega Man is dated but that's a good deal of the charm for me. That, and big Chuck's iconic posturing as he stamps his authority all over the movie. I too thought that Rosalind Cash was great in this and very attractive to boot. The other aspect that endears this film to me is Ron Grainer's achingly melancholic score - a real thing of beauty in my opinion.

    Anyway, great stuff man - keep it up.

  8. Livius, The Omega Man still has a charm for me, as well. Even though I tend to rag on the period, the 70's have a style about them that grows with allure (dang it). A couple of months back, I picked up the Blu-ray Disc of TOM - and there's no way I'd have done that without some pull toward it.

    When you read the novel (this goes for Poncho, as well), I'd be very interested in your thoughts. Thanks for stopping and leaving your kind thoughts, Livius.

  9. Amazing, all-inclusive, in-depth, all-expenses-paid post, lp13.

    And you and Poncho might be related?!!

  10. PCN: at Boomer Travel, we aim to please ;-). And yes, there is that possibility that Poncho and I are distant cousins. The internet is an amazing thing! Thanks, Elyse.

  11. I am ashamed to say that I have never read Matheson's novel but I do love the Vincent Price film. There is something inherently creepy about the way he is in constant danger once night falls and the ending is fantastic. If I'm not mistaken, I think, at least visually, that film inspired the look of Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

    Have you read Del Toro's THE STRAIN? What did you think of it? Being a huge fan of the man and his work I snapped up a copy awhile ago and devoured it in no time. I thought it was a pretty entertaining read and am anticipating the next book in the series.

  12. J.D.: yes, The Last Man on Earth was an inspiration for Romero. I'm looking to get one of the newer MGM copies of this film for my collection (to replace the poor one I have). And I do have The Strain in audiobook (read by Ron Perlman, in fact), and as soon as I finish Trigger City by Chercover, I'm on it! I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks very much for your comment and thoughts, J.D.

  13. I've only seen I AM LEGEND (starring Will Smith) and interestingly, I had assumed the infected population was made up of zombies. Looking back, I realize, they could have been and probably were vampires. Hunh. Anyway, I see that The Omega Man and The Last Man on Earth are both availbale as streaming videos so it looks like I'll be up for a little late night viewing this week! It'll be interesting to watch the movies and compare and; of course, there's no reason or excuse not to check out the book as narrated by Robertson Dean! Thank you for your review!

  14. I've only seen I AM LEGEND (starring Will Smith) and interestingly, I had assumed the infected population was made up of zombies. Looking back, I realize, they could have been and probably were vampires. Hunh. Anyway, I see that The Omega Man and The Last Man on Earth are both availbale as streaming videos so it looks like I'll be up for a little late night viewing this week! It'll be interesting to watch the movies and compare and; of course, there's no reason or excuse not to check out the book as narrated by Robertson Dean! Thank you for your review!

  15. I've only seen I AM LEGEND (starring Will Smith) and interestingly, I had assumed the infected population was made up of zombies. Looking back, I realize, they could have been and probably were vampires. Hunh. Anyway, I see that The Omega Man and The Last Man on Earth are both availbale as streaming videos so it looks like I'll be up for a little late night viewing this week! It'll be interesting to watch the movies and compare and; of course, there's no reason or excuse not to check out the book as narrated by Robertson Dean! Thank you for your review!

  16. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts concerning the examination of the films and audiobook, DEC. Thank you very kindly.