I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend recently. It’s a slight read but powerful and gripping - this was written in the early 50s, predating even George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead movie. To fully appreciate the horror of the scenario (last man left on Earth; everyone else is either dead or infected by a strange virus, turning them into blood-feeding monsters), you have to forget the countless apocalyptic zombie movies, as well as the many attempts (official and unofficial) to bring Matheson’s vision to the screen. This is the story that started it all.
I’ve since watched the Will Smith version and am amazed how even in that, they miss some of the best moments of the novel, particularly hero Robert Neville’s sexual frustrations, compounded by the incessant lascivious taunts of the infected women outside of his fortress home. Also absent is the strange, vocal man who calls for Neville every night, a neighbour he knew before the plague, now one of them. Neville’s hatred of him, later thrown into stark contrast through events, forms a vital part of the story.
Most surprising of all is how nobody sticks to the mantra behind the book title. The novel ends with those three words; we are shown in contrast who Neville represents to those infected with the virus. The Omega Man, The Last Man on Earth and 28 Days Later all use Matheson’s story as source material, but all seem to discard this aspect. The most recent movie (with Will Smith) is OK, but the ending is a total cop-out. I think any adaptation that has Neville as a Christ-like figure surely misses the point?
Amazingly, there’s a pre-production script for a sequel to the Smith version, with Will on Exec Prod duties. Maybe that Robert Neville sprouts wings and a halo.
The book is a great example of economic storytelling - the fractured chronology of events (especially the details surrounding Neville’s dead wife and child) seem perfect for film. So until David Lynch gets around to directing a remake (I can dream), I’d suggest sticking with the novel.