Saturday, November 17, 2007


What is it about Richard Matheson’s seemingly adaptation-friendly novella I Am Legend that makes producers want to make it into something that it isn’t? At what point did some Suit decide that it would make for a boffo Will Smith action movie?

Although while it does have its action moments, it is by no means an action driven narrative.

It’s a fairly meditative piece with a straight-forward story arc, with some flashbacks to fill in the backstory. But in the 50-odd years since its debut, why hasn't there ever been -- or will be -- a proper adaptation?

The novella picks up with the lonely plight of Robert Neville, a man of the Los Angeles suburbs who has watched his wife and child succumb to a deadly bacterium that has also swept his city and the world, leaving him literally the last living man on earth. But not the last man, as a side-effect of the plague causes the victims to return from the grave as bloodthirsty ghouls. Sort of like vampires, but without the table manners.

By day he tracks down the creatures and disposes of those he finds sheltered from the sun with a stake through the heart, and by night he barricades himself in his fortified ranch-style home, bulbs of garlic serving as a moat and mirrors propped to dissuade the approach of the foul-minded trespassers.

The work has been adapted twice already since its publication in 1954, by the Italians in 1964 as the Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and again as the Charlton Heston camp classic THE OMEGA MAN in 1971.

It was also the acknowledged inspiration for George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and by extension the catalyst for the entire zombie subgenre as we know it.

But in all three adaptations (including the upcoming Will Smith version), everything that made the story compelling, made it something more than just some proto-bunker horror story -- was jettisoned.

Although if nothing else, Smith's I AM LEGEND makes THE LAST MAN ON EARTH look lavishly faithful to the material.

In some cases, I can understand why they didn't want to take all the perceived baggage on board. There's a nifty streak of satire running through the story, and Christianity for one doesn't come out looking too good. Obviously, that's not exactly a demographic you want to alienate from filing in to see the latest Will Smith vehicle (as in movie, not the extended commercial for the 2008 Mustang Shelby GT500 that he maneuvers through the empty streets in the opening of the film).

But the most intriguing aspect of the novella is that it took the old fashioned vampire template and worked out a scientific rationalization for the mythos. But with THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND, the vampires have been reduced to garden variety mutants, rendering the source material's raison d' etre moot. And with that goes one of the more powerful moments of the novella, as Neville's wife... well, read the book.

Even worse... they change the ending. Long story short, not all those Neville staked during the day were vampires. Some victims of the plague didn't fully succumb but still were forced to sleep by day, seemingly just more of the vampire ilk. Among those folks -- the next step in the progression of human evolution -- he was viewed as a literal boogeyman.

Pardon my fucking French, but that's the whole fucking point of the fucking title.

Our wiggy hero has become to the next race as the vampires once were to man. The good guy turns out to be really the bad guy, if you're willing to step back from your bias. Neat stuff.

Too bad that no one who has adapted it seems to get the punchline.

Actually, there's always the book and nothing Hollywood can do will change that. But that still doesn't make the process any less confounding.

One of the odd things about the creative process in Hollywood is how much fidelity the movie makers abide by when adapting works of utter and complete dross that has been met with critical disdain but taken up adoringly by the public (as with THE DA VINCI CODE). But when approaching works that have critical and popular cred within the speculative fiction realm, these producers feel no qualms about alienating the core audience that made the work timeless in order to pander to what they figure the perceived cud-chewing masses demand.

The Will Smith vehicle I, ROBOT, as an example, showed how contrary to the source material The Suits are willing to go, ultimately delivering a debasement of the mythos that Asimov had created, filming an alternate universe where hordes of robots scheme to destroy mankind. Or some such nonsense.

One could venture that it's a cultural knee-jerk reaction in the century-old East versus West Coast pissing contest in pursuit of popular entertainment dominance.

Books versus films, y'know?

The damnable thing is that as the story plays out on the page, it would make for one nifty low budget film. The problem is, everyone wants to throw too much money at it... which in turn, forces the project to become something that it's not.


ARBOGAST said...

Those are great foreign editions! I love those covers.

Old Dark Housekeeper said...

Yeah, it seems like another one of those lost arts.

Definitely adds a whole new meaning to "You can't judge a book by its cover"...