Hey Guys! I’m so happy to have Chauncey Rogers here!
I’m also stoked to post another “Book vs Movie” piece! It’s been ages, and I really liked this movie. Actually, I like it more than the book (*dodges rotten vegetable matter). I know it is a rare occurence when this happens but Will Smith brought so much more to the character.
Anyway, here is Chauncey’s take on “I Am Legend”, and don’t forget to read my review on his book “Home to Roost”.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead (If you haven’t seen or read this movie by now, apologies)
Hello everyone! I’m Chauncey Rogers, humble author and story critic, here to offer my thoughts on I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and I Am Legend starring Will Smith.
But before we dive in, a quick thanks to Shanannigans for hosting me. Thanks! I (like many of the rest of us) love seeing your reviews for books and film, and am especially fond of the movie poster showdowns. It’s a treat to have my post here!
And now a warning: I will have spoilers. If you’ve seen the film, then I won’t really be spoiling the book for you. Despite what some people may say, their stories are actually very similar.
Now to the review(s). Here is how I’ve organized it:
Book – Blurb, Summary, Reaction
Film – Blurb, Summary, Reaction
To the Big Screen! – Changes from book to film
Book vs. Film – Which do I prefer?
Closing Thoughts – How Mania affects perceptions
I Am Legend – By Richard Matheson
“Robert Neville” has witnessed the end of the world. The entire population has been obliterated by a vampire virus. Somehow, Neville survived. He must now struggle to make sense of everything that has happened and learn to protect himself against the vampires who hunt him constantly. He must, because perhaps there is nothing else human left.”
Summary: I Am Legend was first published in 1954, and was set in a then-future 1976. Interestingly, it was first published as Science Fiction because of this.
Matheson’s story begins at the end. Mankind is gone, and Neville—a regular guy who happened to survive everything—is cooped up in his Los Angeles home, which he has turned into a fortress to protect himself from the vampires. Through flashbacks, it is revealed that Neville’s wife and child had died from the plague. Neville is horribly lonely, and spends his days gathering supplies, killing the vampires, and struggling against his own depression, fantasies of suicide, and alcoholism.
Neville finds temporary hope in the form of a dog—a small canine that has somehow survived the plague and the vampires. After many days of baiting it, he is able to catch it, but only because it has become sick and feeble. He keeps it for several days before it dies.
His next salvation comes from studying the vampires and the disease that caused them. First, that it is caused by a bacteria, and is not anything supernatural. Many of the symptoms of the vampiric disease are also explained, such as their sensitivity to sunlight, avoidance of crosses (and other religious symbols, crazed behavior, and their apparent immunity to bullets. He also discovers (or realizes) that an encounter with a sick bat in Panama is likely the cause of his own immunity to the disease. However, he never discovers a cure for the disease.
His final salvation comes in the form of a woman who he finds wandering outside.
SPOILERS AHEAD! But the woman is actually one of the vampires, a member of a more docile group that has found ways to cope with the disease. They are afraid of Neville and angry with him for killing members of their group. She came to him as a spy for the group, but develops feelings for Neville very quickly, and warns him that he must flee before other members of her group come to attack him. He stays, is mortally wounded when they come to capture him, and then takes poisons slipped to him by the woman, hastening his inevitable death. As he dies, he realizes that he is the last of the normal humans, and is now become a legend to the vampires, much as the vampires were legendary before the plague.
The film came out in 2007. I saw it in 2007 and knew that it was based on a book. Most reviews I heard of the book at the time said that it was, “Stupid, weird, about vampires, and not like the movie.”
So I didn’t read the book until very recently, at the recommendation of a friend whose opinions I respect (unless we’re talking about Star Wars).
I’m glad that I finally read it. Parts of it were surprisingly exciting, and Matheson gives you a real look into Neville’s mind and heart. It’s not too difficult to become attached to him.
There are two common complaints I’ve heard about it. First is that it isn’t much like the movie. I disagree, but we’ll get into that later. Second is that it is too short. I can sort of agree with this, but I also find it to be a good thing—a book that ends before I feel bored/finished with it is usually a pretty good book. However, the end can feel a bit abrupt, so there is merit to that complaint.
I Am Legend – Starring Will Smith
“Robert Neville is a brilliant scientist, but even he could not contain the terrible virus that was unstoppable. Neville is now the last human survivor in what is left of the world.”
A cure for cancer is developed by mutating the Measles Virus so that it targets and destroys cancer cells. However, the disease soon mutates, and becomes the apocalypse-causing Krippin Virus. Krippin Virus kills spreads like wildfire, killing 90% of the people who are contracted with the disease. Almost all of the remaining 10% become crazed and bloodthirsty, seeking to feed on and destroy those who are uninfected.
Robert Neville is one of the 0.002% of the original human population with a natural immunity to KV. He is also a military scientist and virologist, and has been working for the past three years on developing a cure for the disease. His wife and child died early in the outbreak, and since then his only companion has been a dog, Samantha (Sam). He spends his days gathering supplies, broadcasting messages to other survivors on the radio, waiting for anyone to hear his messages, and working to cure the disease from his bunker/home in Manhattan.
Using his own immune blood as a base, he finds a potential cure that seems to work on rats. Eager to test the cure on a human patient, he baits and traps one of the infected, taking a young female into his lab for experiments. Unfortunately, the cure he discovered seems ineffective on an infected human subject.
Shortly thereafter, Robert Neville is himself baited and trapped by the infected, even though he believes them to be so devolved as to make something as complicated as constructing a trap impossible. He is able to escape, but his dog is wounded by one of the infected during the encounter. As dogs are immune to the airborne strain of KV, but not the blood/saliva strain, Sam develops the symptoms of KV and Robert Neville is forced to euthanize her.
Without his companion and fueled by rage and grief, Neville seeks a suicidal vengeance upon the infected that night, and is nearly killed. At the last second, he is rescued by a woman and a young boy, both of whom are naturally immune to KV. They take the delirious Neville back to his bunker/home.
The girl and boy are headed to a rumored camp of survivors, and ask Neville to go with them. He insists on staying and working on a cure. However, before anything is decided, his bunker/home is attacked by the infected, who discovered where he lived the previous night by following Neville, the boy, and the girl home.
The humans take shelter in the basement laboratory from the infected, and discover that Neville’s cure worked—the infected girl is seemingly cured. Unfortunately, they are trapped and the situation is dire. Neville makes the boy and girl take the cure and hide, telling them to go to the colony of survivors and have the cure produced and distributed. Then Neville kills himself and the infected, thus allowing the girl and boy to escape.
The girl and boy find the rumored colony and bring the cure with them, acknowledging themselves as Neville’s legacy, and Neville as their legend.
Will Smith does a phenomenal job portraying Robert Neville. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, he’s a man acting alone (Just kidding. He has Sam, who also did a phenomenal job). His performance is very emotional.
Overall, the movie is great. Sad parts, some funny parts, and some very tense parts. Like in the novel, Neville’s history is revealed piecemeal as he goes through his daily routines. Like the novel, the ending comes quickly.
I saw the film when it first came out in 2007, and then again more recently. The infected are mostly CGI, and they look fairly dated at this point—that plasticy look that CGI often have. However, the other aspects of the film hold up just fine after ten years. It’s a good thrill overall. However, like most movies of this genre, the best experience is the first experience. There is rewatch value, but I think once a decade is often enough for me.
TO THE BIG SCREEN! – Changes from the Book to the Film
Remember how a lot of people complained about them being waaaay different? Well, let’s look at those differences. Then we’ll look at them again.
1b – Robert Neville – Spent time in the military during World War III (Yes, that’s a 3), and that was where he picked up his immunity to vampirism, basically by being vaccinated by a vampire bat. Before the outbreak, he worked in a factory. His daughter died from the disease and was burned. His wife died from the disease and was buried, then returned from the dead because of the disease, and was re-killed and re-entombed by Robert Neville. Alcoholism is a huge struggle, as is lusting after the vampire women.
1f – Robert Neville – A career military officer and virologist who also happens to be immune to KV (what a lucky coincidence!). I don’t recall the book specifying a race. The wiki said he was white. Obviously, Will Smith is black. His daughter is a little older and was killed along with his wife when the helicopter they were evacuating Manhattan in crashed (another helicopter lost control and ran into it).
Were the changes good for the movie? Movies have to cut a lot of information. Making him naturally immune is a lucky break, and seems a bit forced, but the backstory of the vampire bat is a bit hoaky and seems highly unlikely. Making him a virologist is a good change, since he is running a complex laboratory and trying to develop a cure—in the book, the man doesn’t even know how to use a microscope at first, and would have no business actually curing the disease.
Choosing Will Smith as the actor also seems like a good choice to me. He’s a strong enough actor to carry a film on his own, and the race of Robert Neville is not important to the story at all.
Having his family die in front of him, instead of slowly and separately from the disease simplifies the story, and adds an awful surprise when you go from “Oh good, his family got on the helicopter to escape,” to “And now they’re dead” in 3 seconds. Overall, a good change. The film does feature an homage to his daughter in the book, however, in a scene where Neville is searching a home and finds a nursery decorated for a little girl. Also, having the daughter be older is perhaps slightly less appalling than killing a small infant (Maybe? It’s still horrible.), but is certainly a good change, because it strengthens the audience’s attachment to…..Sam!
2b – Dog – Neville finds a small dog, is able to catch it, and it dies. It gives him brief hope of companionship, but that’s pretty much it.
2f – Dog (Sam) – Neville’s daughter, Marley (named after Bob Marley) insists that Neville keep their puppy, Sam, with him to keep him company. She does this as she boards a helicopter to evacuate Manhattan, literally seconds before dying. It makes the connection to Sam VERY powerful. Sam is also a German Shepard, not a little dog.
Were the changes good for the movie? – Absolutely. Sam is a great character. His size allows him to be involved in the action. His connection with Marley makes him very potent emotionally. His duration in the story makes his death much more meaningful, because both audience and Neville have had time to bond with him. I’ve seen his death appear on lists of “Top Ten Saddest Animal Deaths in Films” lists. Much better than the book.
3b – Setting – Set 26 years in the future (from when it was published) and after a third world war, which helped spread the disease (more on that later). However, there was no mention of flying cars or anything. Just a mild version of the future.
3f – Setting – Set in the near-future from 2007. Basically set in the modern day. The only really special thing about this is that the film “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was predicted (prophesied of?) in the background of one shot, even though it wouldn’t hit theaters for another 9 years.
Were the changes good for the movie? Yes, I think so. They could have stuck with the older setting, but why? It could have been told in either, but made the film more real and relatable to the viewer to have it set in the modern day. Furthermore, the setting of the book was secondary to the story, possibly even tertiary, and really didn’t tie into the movie in any way, except in one way: the way the virus spread.
4b – The Disease and the Infected – In the book, it’s a bacteria. The thermonuclear exchanges of World War III caused a bunch of dust storms, and somehow the dust storms spread the bacteria? It was a bit confusing, partially because Neville doesn’t fully understand it in the book. The bacteria could reanimate the dead, provided that they died from the disease. These were referred to as “True Vampires,” and once killed, would vanish in a puff of smoke (Not really. But they’d almost instantly decompose into dust. The bacteria were holding their body together. Literally [I don’t use that word unless I mean it.]) The infected are referred to as vampires, and are sensitive to garlic (though Neville can never isolate why they’re so sensitive to the smell of it), are nearly bullet proof (because the bacteria are, again, literally holding their bodies together. However, using a stake prevents the bacteria from re-fusing the body and closing the wound, allowing the vampire to die of blood loss), and avoid mirrors and religious symbols (this is purely psychological, and is connected explicitly to whatever religion the infected was before becoming a vampire). The vampires are incredibly bloodthirsty, but retain memories from before their infections. Infected also lose all pigment. Finally, the vampires are sensitive to sunlight, since it kills the bacteria, unless it is in it’s dust-storm spreading form.
4f – The Disease and the Infected – In the film, it’s a virus—a mutated version of the measles virus. Infected are highly sensitive to UV rays, which are what gives normal people sunburns. Basically, they get incredibly bad sunburns incredibly quickly. This is actually a real thing—I have a friend who suffers from this condition, and yes I’m being serious. Anyways, all the infected people have it. They also have drastically heightened metabolisms and temperatures, and are very fast and strong. Neville thinks that they lack all semblance of human intelligence, but he believes the same in the book, and is proven wrong in both. Infected also lose all pigment, and their hair falls out. For some reason, they also love to bash things with their head. They’re never called vampires, but instead are referred to as “Darkseekers” by the girl. She’s from Brazil, so maybe that’s why she’d have a different name for them. Unlike in the book, the infected are never dead. NEVER DEAD. NEVER, EVER, ARE THEY DEAD! They’re not bullet-proof, either—or are they? Neville never kills one with a gun, although he shoots at them plenty. You decide for yourself.
Were the changes for the movie good? This is, I believe, where most of the gripes come into play. People who saw the movie and then read the book are mad because the book is about vampires, not zombies (even though the movie isn’t about zombies, either). People who read the book first were mad for the opposite reason. Silly people. In the book, the people who are sick are much more like vampires. In the film, things are again simplified: they’re just crazy infected people wanting to eat Robert Neville. I felt like the disease in the book was perhaps too complicated, and the way the bacteria worked was unconvincing to a reader in 2017. Back in the 1950s, perhaps, but not as much today. However, there are flaws in the film, too. Why, for instance, would an infected bash his head into things like crazy? Why? If they’re intelligent enough to build traps and control infected dogs, why bang their heads against things? It doesn’t really add up. I think that the changes are good, but I’m not super pleased with all of them.
5b – Other People – There are no other people. Just the girl who is actually infected, who learns to care for Neville and tries to save him from the other infected people.
5f – Other People – This is another pretty big change. The woman and the boy show up, and there is the promise of other survivors as well. They try to save Neville from the infected by bringing him with them, but he refuses to leave Manhattan.
Were the changes for the movie good? Perhaps. It was a great twist in the book when the girl turned out to be another vampire, though one that was disguised. However, given the physical changes of the infected in the movie, it would have been difficult to explain a disguised vampire in the film. And, to be honest, it’s a bit tough to swallow in the book, too. For example, she hides her lack of pigment with makeup—makeup that rubs off later when she sort of attacks him. However prior to that they were had some degree of intimacy. He didn’t notice her skin being covered in foundation? Anyways….Again, the change gets rid of the twist that the book had, but it was important for making the ending work.
6b – The End – Neville is wounded (shot in the chest by gun-wielding vampires), taken to the vampire’s compound, and then slipped poison by the girl. He kills himself, rather than go on trial before the vampires and be executed.
6f – The End – Neville’s bunker/home is revealed and attacked by a large group of infected, and his emergency precautions and security systems fail to beat back the infected attackers. He discovers that he actually did find the cure for the disease, gives it to the girl and the kid, and then dies heroically/stoically to defeat the attacking infected. The girl and boy leave, find the compound, and the day is apparently saved.
What?! Surprise alternate ending?! 6F(2) – The End – Same thing, only instead of Neville dying at the end, he realizes that the attacking infected are just trying to rescue the infected girl that he captured for testing—apparently their leader is in love with her or something. He heroically/stoically wheels her out of his Plexiglas safe room and lets the infected take her away. Then they all live happily ever after. And it is so stupid. SO STUPID!
Were the changes for the movie good? Eh. I feel like the ending is a weak point for all of them. In the book, the ending comes quickly and feels anticlimactic. In the movie, the ending is a little bit better built, and has the lovely twist of Neville actually curing KV, but it is also perhaps the big betrayal of the source material, making Neville a savior-hero instead of a legend-hero. And the happy ending version is…just dumb. Some people may like it, but it seems to undo much of what the film worked so hard to establish. Furthermore, not every story needs a happy ending.
Book vs. Film – Which Do I Prefer?
It’s a tough call, but not too tough. I would choose the film over the book. I found the film more enjoyable, and better-built story-wise. However, the book is a classic. The film is not. That film will be largely forgotten, but the book will continue to be read as an early-modern horror story—something that helped to create and define a genre. It’s a good book, and well-deserving of its status as a classic.
Closing Thoughts – How Mania Affects Perception
My final thoughts are a bit less reviewy and more just thinky.
When I Am Legend hit theaters in 2007, people labeled it a zombie movie. Zombies were kind of an exciting thing at the time, though they hadn’t gotten the hype that The Walking Dead would bring. Still, I Am Legend was, apparently, a zombie movie. If you don’t remember this, or don’t believe me, then just check the reviews on Amazon for the film, and you’ll see the word “zombie” popping up all over the place. There is nothing about that movie that really suggests that they are zombies. The infected are ugly, but not dead. They have a bloodlust and rage issues, but they aren’t dead.
The interesting thing to me is that in the book I Am Legend, Robert Neville starts off the book by saying that the scientists were wrong. Scientists had said that the vampires weren’t supernatural. They were just victims of an infectious disease. The scientists and government, in the book, were fighting against the hysteria caused by the vampire outbreak, a hysteria only made worse by people believing the vampires to be a supernatural manifestation of the powers of evil, rather than the natural (albeit gruesome) affects of a bacterial infection.
Neville eventually comes to realize that the scientists were right—the vampires were not supernatural at all, and everything about them could be explained in terms of symptoms and psychology. He continues to call them vampires, but he realizes that people’s mania, caused by fear of evil and vampires, had clouded people’s minds from making better choices and acting more rationally.
Now, when I Am Legend came out in 2007, there was a bit of a zombies mania building up in our culture. That mania caused people to see the infected people in the film not as vampires (or even infected), but as zombies. Just like people in the book had called the infected vampires, moviegoers called the infected zombies, letting their mania color their perception of reality, and ultimately, causing people to be unjustifiably critical of the book.
So what? Well, my parting thoughts and perhaps semi-inspiring words are these: don’t let manias affect your critical thinking skills, judgments, or behaviors. There are real world applications for this, too—not just critiquing books and films.
Judge things for what they are, not for what the mania surrounding them is. Sometimes this is trivial and unimportant—Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for example, is trivial and unimportant, and was affected by a sort of mania upon its release. Sometimes this is not trivial and very important. The new family in the neighborhood, packed into a tiny home, refugees from a distant war-torn country, speaking their own language and believing their own religion—they are neither trivial nor unimportant, and they will be greatly affected by the mania of the day. Separate yourself from manias, and judge people (and things) for what they are. It may just make you a better critic and a better person.
Chauncey Rogers was born in Arizona, and since then has hopped back and forth between the mid-western and western United States. He married in 2012 while attending school in Utah. His favorite movie since he was three is Jurassic Park, and he wishes very badly that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster were real, though he doesn’t believe in them as much as he used to.