Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"

I finally picked up Richard Matheson’s famous 1954 novel I Am Legend because I kept hearing how all three movie adaptations (The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007)) were good but not only missed the point of the book but fucked up the ending. Thousands of geeks can’t be wrong, so I set off to investigate.

What I found is a book that reads like a fast-paced thriller, but in which not much really happens. Robert Neville is the last survivor in a world filled with vampires. His house is a fortress in which he (impatiently) waits out his nights before staking as many vampires as possible during daylight. While this situation doesn't feel new (especially the detailed biological research on the cause of vampirism) that’s only because of how many books and movies have built upon Matheson’s creation. In other words, this is the original post-apocalyptic zombie text (the vampires might as well be zombies—to the point where Night of the Living Dead was inspired by it). Despite a (now) over familiar subject, IAL holds up well. It’s an emotionally honest work that depicts Neville’s struggles with apathy, anger, alcoholism and many other emotions resulting from his life of isolation and horror.

The ending is a twist that is so cynically powerful that I can see why movie execs are scared of it. (Spoilers!) By showing how Neville’s quest for “good” turns him into “evil” from other points of view, RM taps into an uncomfortable truth of human nature: that we’re all capable of the darkest deeds—while telling ourselves that we’re behaving altruistically.  And in a world ruled by vampires, Neville is guilty of the most heinous genocide. Now picture Will Smith or Charlton Heston committing these acts and becoming the poster boy of evil! The movies can’t (or don’t have the guts), and so entirely miss the point of Neville’s unwinnable scenario. After all, who among us could have handled Neville’s situation any differently? Few – if any – of us, I suspect, and so we’re forced to rethink all of Neville’s actions from the lens of the ending – not a comfortable experience.

I’m happy I read this book, although I have to admit to being bored at times; parts of Neville’s investigation take too long, and Neville and Ruth’s discussions are extremely dated.  But overall the book is a powerful touchstone for a lot of current popular culture – and it’s always good to go to the source rather than relying on the pale imitations. And you gotta love that ending!

Cross posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

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