I Am Legend
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The story takes place over a period of time between 1976 and 1978 in Southern California. The novel opens with the monotony and horror of the daily life of the protagonist, Robert Neville. Neville is apparently the only survivor of an apocalypse caused by a pandemic of bacteria, the symptoms of which are very similar to vampirism. Every day he makes repairs to his house, boarding up windows, stringing and hanging garlic, disposing of vampires' corpses on his lawn and going out to gather any additional supplies needed for hunting and killing more vampires.
Neville's psychological disposition is a significant element in the novel, and his struggles with despair imbue the character with intensity and gravitas. The author emphasizes that he is an ordinary, flawed man trying to deal with an extraordinary catastrophe. It also explores the loneliness of being by himself, excitement and hope of finding others, and disappointment over still finding himself alone. During the evenings, Neville drinks whiskey and listens to records. The records referenced by name sometimes reflect what is happening in the story, while at other times they simply reflect Neville's mood.
Much of the story is devoted to Neville's struggles to understand the plague that has infected everyone around him, and the novel details the progress of his discoveries. Instead of asking the reader to accept a supernatural explanation for vampire phenomena, the author strives to offer scientific basis for such symptoms as aversion to garlic, craving of fresh blood, and resistance to bullets but vulnerability to stakes and sunlight. The aversion to mirrors and crosses is classified as psychological. This represents one of the first attempts in popular culture to explain vampirism scientifically, something that has become more common in vampire stories since. Neville hypothesizes that he is immune to the bacteria because he was bitten by a vampire bat when he was stationed in Panama.
One day, a dog appears in the neighborhood. Neville spends weeks trying to win its trust and domesticate it. He eventually traps the terrified dog and wins it over, but it dies from the vampire infection a week later.
As the story progresses, it is revealed that some infected people have discovered a means to hold the disease at bay. However, the "still living" people appear no different from the true vampire during the day while both are immobilized in sleep. Thus, along with the vampires, Neville kills the still living people. He becomes a source of terror to the still living, since he can go around in daylight (which they can only do for a short length of time) and kill them while they sleep.
The still living send a girl named Ruth to spy on Neville, and they cleverly replicate Neville's relationship to the dog. Ruth pretends to be terrified of Neville at first sight, and rather than spend weeks trying to win her over, he attacks her and drags her back to his house. Though Neville is suspicious of her true nature and much of their interaction focuses on Neville's internal struggle between his deep seated paranoia and his hope, it is clear by his seizure of Ruth that the scales have tipped in favor of the irrational. Eventually Neville performs a blood test on her, revealing her true nature to him before she knocks him out. Ruth leaves a note telling him about the group of people like her, explaining that she was sent to spy and how monstrous he appears to them. Months later, the still living people attack, shooting Neville but taking him alive so that he can be executed in front of everyone in the new society.
Before he can be executed, Ruth provides him with an envelope of pills. Neville takes the pills so he will feel no pain when the still living execute him. He finally realizes why the new society of the living infected regards him as a monster: just as vampires were regarded as legendary monsters that preyed on the vulnerable humans in their beds, Neville has become a mythical figure that kills both vampires and the infected living while they are sleeping. He becomes a legend as the vampires once were, hence the title.
I Am Legend has had a profound effect on the horror and science fiction genres. For instance, it is one of the first stories to try to explain vampirism scientifically. It also served as the inspiration for many other writers. One notable example would be screenwriter and director George Romero who used the novel as inspiration for his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which has gone on to create its own horror subgenre. Matheson, however was not impressed by Romero's interpretation, telling an interviewer, "It was ... kind of cornball."
The Last Man on Earth
In 1964, Vincent Price starred as Dr. Robert Morgan (rather than "Neville") in The Last Man on Earth. (An Italian production, the original title was L'Ultimo Uomo Della Terra). Matheson wrote the screenplay for this adaptation, but later rewrites were changed, because he did not wish his name to appear in the credits. As a result, Matheson is credited under the pseudonym "Logan Swanson." Nevertheless, the film is the most faithful of all three film adaptations, and adheres fairly closely to the book.
The Omega Man
In 1971, a far different version appeared as The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston (as Robert Neville) and Anthony Zerbe. Matheson had no influence on the screenplay for this film; it deviates from the novel's story in several ways, completely removing the vampirical elements.
I Am Legend
Will Smith stars in the film directed by Francis Lawrence, released on December 14, 2007. The film has already been a box office success, breaking the record for the highest opening weekend for a movie in December, earning 77 million domestically in its first weekend.