I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Author: Richard Matheson
Release Date: 1954
Dates Read: January 21-26, 2012
Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman, and child on Earth has become a vampire, and they are all hungry for Neville’s blood.
By day, he is the hunter, stalking the sleeping undead through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn.
How long can one man survive in a world of vampires?
When the modern film adaptation I Am Legend came out in 2007, many people were annoyed or angered by the movie. I heard things like, “it’s nothing like the book”, “the ending sucks” and “it misses the point”. Now I know why. Let me just tell you, the movie does miss the point, particularly with the theatrical ending. That version of the film misses the point like the missing the broad side of a barn with a tactical nuke at point-blank range. That’s not to say I dislike the movie. I thought that, with the alternate ending, it was pretty good. I still think that. However, reading the original story has changed my feelings about it a bit, namely that I like certain things about it less than the novel. Now, I don’t remember if the credits say “based on I Am Legend by Richard Matheson”, but if they do, I believe they definitely commit the crime of false advertising. The most it should say is “inspired by…” The only similarities I can think of between the book and what I remember of the movie are:
- The main character is named Robert Neville
- There is a plague of vampires that led to the collapse of civilization
- The main character is a human man, ostensibly the last on earth, who is immune to the disease
- The main character lost his wife and child after/during the outbreak of the disease
- There is a dog
- There is a woman
- There is science
But enough about the film! Overall, I enjoyed the novel. I was not initially aware that the novel I purchased contained I Am Legend in addition to several short stories, because it was not clearly advertised on my edition. Thus, I was surprised that the story was as short as it was. I only read I Am Legend from the bunch, because that is the reason I purchased it. I feel like Matheson could have made the book longer, and fleshed out the world, the situations, and Neville’s past quite a bit more.
One thing about the story that I wasn’t a huge fan of was how little actually happened in the book. A big portion of the narrative was devoted to the more mundane events and inner monologues in the post-apocalyptic life of Robert Neville. On the other hand, much of the narrative dealing with Neville’s inner thoughts helped vastly with the world-building. Through Neville’s erratic, desperate, hopeless thoughts, the reader developed a taste for what it felt like to be the last man on earth, living a daily battle for existence in the midst of a plague of vampires, having lost everyone and everything you once loved.
However, that brings me to my next point — Neville was surprisingly unfeeling. I don’t know if the reader was supposed to chock that up to him being a man who doesn’t want to display feelings, his being a man that has given up hope, or what. He faced situations with very little sympathy, or even horror, and seemed largely apathetic about what was happening to him and what he was doing. Throughout several places in the story, I got the idea that Matheson has issues with women. I know that authors don’t always write their thoughts into their characters, but it didn’t seem like Neville was supposed to be especially misogynistic, because the author wrote it strictly as if his thoughts were fact and entirely acceptable.
There were some things I really liked about I Am Legend. First off, it is number one on my list for most scientific books about vampires I have ever read. As a biology major and pharmacy student, I found it incredibly interesting to read about Neville’s discoveries and experiments as he uncovered the origin of the disease. That Matheson invented a somewhat scientifically sound background for the existence of vampires, debunking some elements of mythology and supporting others was original and pleasing to me.
The thing I liked most about the novel (especially compared to the movie) was the ending. The events of the ending portion of I Am Legend really came out of left field for me. I wasn’t expecting what happened, at all. It is very much the most important part of the novel. It leaves us with a message, questioning what we have known and what we believe. I thought it was poignant and powerful, and it certainly left me thinking.
It is an unimportant detail, but I also enjoyed that the last line of the novel was “I am legend.” I love when books really come full circle, and when they have their title worked into them somehow. Matheson managed to do both, and it brought a smile to my face.