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Page to Screen: I Am Legend

Updated on July 24, 2015


Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend (2007) is the third film adaptation from the original novel. The first two were The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Omega Man (1971). There's also I am Omega (2007) that was filmed and released as an attempt to cash in on this film, although it does not credit Matheson's work.

Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend


The Film

Francis Lawrence's adaptation of the film came out in 2007 and starred Will Smith. Rather than vampires, this iteration of I Am Legend features mutant-like creatures far more similar to zombies than to vampires. Rather than a plant worker with some military experience, Robert Neville in this version is a US Army virologist who is hard at work attempting to create a cure in order to help restore the human race. This movie is psychological due to his isolation and shows his constant efforts in attempting to find a cure. However, it is well known for creating two different endings with the default drastically going away from the novel's meaning. Nonetheless, it received favorable reviews and made about 400 million back, not including inflation.

The Book

I Am Legend features the last man on earth, Robert Neville, surviving amongst a world filled with vampires. It follows the psychopathic and physical strain he experiences, as well as the science of how the world came about to end, and how it will go on. Its treatment of vampires is unique in its own way where Matheson takes some liberties in his material, especially with his thought out explanations of their traits. It's responsible not only for four different films that have spawned off of it, but for largely popularizing the zombie apocalypse genre, as evidenced by George A. Romero's confession regarding the source material for his Night of the Living Dead, as well as being inspirational for much of Stephen King's material.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend


Difference in Novel and Film

The Infection
In the film, it's portrayed that a cure for cancer went wrong and turned anyone susceptible into the mutants we see as the antagonist. In the book, it's shown, in a bit of loose science, to be a bacteria that acts somewhat like a parasite to the point of possessing the body, either killing it and reanimating it or simply using a still living host, and using it as a platform to infect others. This infection is used to explain some of the numerous characteristics the vampires in the book have, such as the aversion to sunlight and the effects of wooden stakes on the body. In the book, Robert Neville calls the bacteria vampiris.

The Monsters
The biggest change is easily the monsters. In the film, they are presented as mutated humans brought on by an attempt to cure cancer. They're adrenal glands are always open and their metabolism is scary high, resulting in their presentation to always be at the very edge of exerting themselves. They are harmed by UV radiation and remain clustered in groups during the day. Also, as the 'retrovirus' is airborne, anyone not immune is infected as soon as they breathe it in; dogs can only become infected through direct contact, usually a bite from the infected, not unlike zombies. The monsters also featured enhanced strength, making it impractical for a man to fight them off on his own without weapons. It is also hinted in the film that the infected are keen enough to make traps to ensnare Neville, but this isn't really given much ground until the original ending shows the infected to be thoughtful creatures.

In the book, they are more or less vampires, staying in a coma during the day, coming out at night. They abhor garlic and the sunlight kills them, as well as wooden stakes driven through their body (as opposed to bullets). There's also two kinds of vampire, the reanimated corpses and the infected which suffers more on a psychological level, although they are capable of problem solving as they call out Neville's name in the night and the women attempt to seduce him by flashing him, all in order to draw him out so that they can drink his blood. They are not superhuman and Robert Neville is able to fend off a mob of them with flailing fists enough to get inside and lock his door. There's a lot of technical material behind their body glue and how their body stays together that I won't get into.

As part of the plot twist nearer to the end of the book, there is a group of still living infected vampires that take drugs to inhibit the germ, allowing them clear thought, that in the end brings about a new society, one that unfortunately doesn't have a place for Robert Neville or any other immune humans.

One important piece to know about the film is its original ending that most did not see. In this 'alternate ending,' the alpha male of the monsters storms in his friends to attack Neville. However, the alpha male communicates that it wants the female, the one Neville is experimenting on, back. During the process of bringing her back, it becomes quite clear that the monsters look out for each other and clearly have emotions, something that seems to shock Neville as he considers how many infected he's killed trying to create a cure.

Robert Neville
In the film, he's presented as a military virologist, someone who's credible with attempting to solve the epidemic. In the book, he's a worker at some unspecified plant, an everyday average man, who is surprisingly handy (as he reinforces his house with a better freezer, a generator, vampire-proofing his lights, littering everything with mirrors, crosses, and Torahs (to keep away the living vampires who are still 'superstitious'). When the book's version attempts to investigate and possibly cure the bacteria causing the vampirism, he studies books from the library because honestly, what else is a man going to do at the end of the world? In addition, the book's Robert Neville spends daytime hours going about to kill vampires, both living and reanimated, while they sleep in their comas.

While Will Smith's portrayal is shown to struggle with the science and isolation he feels, the literary Robert Neville deals with more psychological issues. He struggles with being alone and sexually frustrated to the point that he even considers the female vampires who attempt to seduce him to on more than one occasion. When he does encounter a woman, he even calmly recollects that in the past he would likely have taken her and raped her. Even while killing a huge amount of vampires, he feels that every female vampire he kills reminds him of his wife, who died and became reanimated. He also struggles with physical addictions to cigarettes and alcohol, which feeds into a cycle with his rage. Interestingly, when the idea of suicide appears, Robert Neville seems indifferent to it, seeming as there is something always to do.

Forms of Immunity
There's really not much to say on this. Will Smith's character doesn't have a true explanation on why he's immune and most of the world wasn't. The book's protagonist theorizes that when he was stationed in Panama (his rank and duty is undisclosed) he was bitten by a vampire bat that may have carried a weakened state of the bacteria vampiris and his body was able to fight it off and become immune, and it's the only plausible explanation given.

The Dog
Potentially the most memorable scene in the film, Samantha was a dog that Neville had as a puppy just as the infection began and served as a constant companion through the film until the canine's exit. In the book however, Robert Neville finds a stray dog and a large section of the book is given to how Neville interacts with it, trying to feed and care for it while gaining its trust. In the end however, both suffer the same fate and while the delivery is different per medium, the effect is the same. However, while the dog's fate breaks Will Smith's character, it merely teaches the book version not to really have hope and stick to his schedule of things to survive the vampiric apocalypse.

Movie Trailer for I Am Legend

Closing Thoughts

As I watched the film before reading the book, I thought both iterations were very entertaining and would recommend them to fans of the horror genre. That being said, I recognize that the cinematic release of the film doesn't stay perfectly true to the book. I do believe the meandering differences were perfectly adapted for their mediums (Robert being a virologist from the get-go, having a dog to begin with, vampires versus light-fearing mutants, and not explaining every minute detail of the infection or Robert's psychological battles, for example). I also found it ironic and strangely fitting to have both works be based on loose science that isn't exactly how it would operate it our world. The main problem lies with the endings of the film, particularly the cinematic one.

With the originally released ending, there isn't any credence given to the thought process of the infected, treating them as nothing more than animalistic creatures out to kill any humans they find. However, even with the originally planned ending of the film, there are logical inconsistencies and the unnecessary addition of the woman and boy who Neville interacts with that ultimately serve no purpose in the film's final climax, as well as the questionable use of the cure and the fate of the cured(?) infected female who goes to rejoin the rest of the infected. Understandably, this probably would have been partially fixed if this ending had not been abandoned for being too dark and controversial (the monsters weren't really bad guys after all). However, this is how I feel as it stands.

While I understand and acknowledge the appropriate adaptation of page to screen and the necessary cut content (as most of the book was Neville's inner thoughts and mental struggles), I cannot help but feel some remorse that some of the more gripping psychological struggles weren't expressed in any way in the film. I personally felt that Robert Neville's character was far darker than Will Smith's portrayal (please, no pun intended) but ultimately, more necessary and realistic to a man who was the last of his kind in the world. The film was a cinematic delight in the end, I will not argue.

Still, when it comes to experiencing both mediums, I strongly advise watching the film first. It's appropriated for the television and transfers very well. However, as usual, the book contains far more detail and much more struggle of man versus nature that's far more memorable than the film. I fear reading the book before watching the film will lead to unnecessary disappointment however and strongly advise doing the opposite.

I Am Legend's Alternate Ending

Book vs Movie

For those of you who read the book and watched the movie, what did you prefer?

See results

Further Reading

You can read more Page to Screen adaptation commentaries if you click here.

© 2014 Travis Wood


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