“I am Legend” by Richard Matheson is one of the most important and influential stories among his vast body of work. The first movie to adapt this renowned horror novel was “Last Man on Earth”. Many films have copied ‘Last Man’s’ formula, without much regard for the original work of literature. A modern production of “I am Legend” closely followed both the novel and the original movie adaptation. Although much of the story remains the same as the film “Last Man on Earth”, 2007’s “I am Legend” is almost pure science fiction.
“Last Man on Earth” – Vincent Price (1964)
Vincent Price’s portrayal of the central character is the truest to the original novel. Although the character name is slightly changed, Robert Morgan is still a grim and tortured man, destroyed by loneliness. He drinks, he rages, he laughs hysterically. Although he searches for a cure to the vampire disease, he spends much of his time seeking out and destroying the infected. As told in Matheson’s novel, he is forced to kill his own wife when she returns from the dead to drink his blood. Horror and seclusion have made him a hard man.
The ultimate horror for Morgan comes when he finally acquires some companionship. Ruth, the woman he rescues is not what she seems, and the story rushes toward a bitter and horrific conclusion. Morgan learns not all of the infected are mindless, blood-thirsty beasts. Some have regained human reason and started their own society in which Morgan himself is the monstrous enemy.
The novel’s title, “I am Legend”, refers to the fact that he has become the monster, and that even after his death, the new breed of mankind will tell tales about the boogey-man, Richard Morgan, who destroyed so many of their kind. The script of “Last Man on Earth” and Price’s sublime performance capture the gripping horror and sense of doom of the original work.
“I am Legend” – Will Smith (2007)
As a science fiction movie this film is top notch, but as a horror film it falls flat. Will Smith’s performance is far too upbeat and perky, and strips away all of the brooding dread of Richard Matheson’s original characterization. While at times it’s suspenseful, there is nothing overtly scary or horrific about the unfolding story.
Like “Last Man on Earth”, great detail is paid to science. In the original novel, Robert Neville isn’t a scientist, but in both films he is a biochemist. “I am Legend” pays even greater detail to the scientific aspects of the vampire virus, as well as showing a great deal of Neville’s experiments and rigorous daily life. As a science fiction film it is better than average.
Ruining the story’s true impact, the writer and director opt for a standard happy ending. In this version, Neville is considered a legend because he found the cure to the virus. His legacy as a light of hope in the darkness, is entirely contrary to the true intention of the source material, and destroys the horror of the entire plot.
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