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#21 – I Am Legend

June 22, 2007

it’s your grey complexion that i admire mostI wind up reading a lot of books that people I respect are working on film adaptations of, because I’m curious to check the books out first: No Country for Old Men, Them: Adventures With Extremists, and The Lovely Bones are all on my list for that exact reason. It’s kind of lazy, but I’ve found a number of authors I love this way. I’m aware that Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend has been adapted twice so far, into The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, but I’ve never seen them. In this case, I wanted to read I Am Legend strictly because I’d had the book recommended to me. However, not until it was actually sitting on my desk did I hear about this:

I’m really glad I read I Am Legend now, because I’m sure come December it’s just going to be considered that book from that Fresh Prince movie. After reading it, though, I suspect it’s going to be an I, Robot situation: “Hey, what an interesting premise and title that classic science-fiction book has. Let’s add some chase scenes and explosions.”

I Am Legend is a book about vampires who act more like zombies, but it’s like no story about either that I’ve ever read. Usually you’ve got a band of survivors trying to work together, but the concept here is that there’s only one: the narrator, Robert Neville. “The last man on Earth is not alone”, and all that. Neville is barricaded in his house and surrounded by crosses and garlic, making him 100% safe from attack. Unlike most monster stories, the most immediate threats that Neville faces are loneliness and despair. The book thus ends up owing more to Robinson Crusoe than Dawn of the Dead ever did: the hero has to choose between utter solitude within his stronghold, or certain death outside of it.

As I Am Legend was published in 1954, Robert Neville takes a methodical, ’50s approach to his situation which I absolutely love. The vampires here go into a deep coma during daylight hours, so Neville spends his days reinforcing his house, researching to find out what caused the outbreak, and systematically slaughtering any sleeping vampires he finds. He spends his nights drinking scotch and listening to classical music while outside they uselessly scream obscenities and throw rocks. It’s Neville’s efforts to keep working in spite of his hopelessness that make this book such a good read, and I’m certain this will be the first thing to go in the upcoming adaptation. Long nights of desperate isolation do not an action movie make.

By the way, the cover of the current edition of this book is much scarier than the one I included up at the top of this post, but the old one’s the edition I read and I’m so glad I was able to find a picture of it: it’s the most hardcore book cover I’ve ever seen. The back has the same image, and in the same insane multi-colour writing, says “I AM THE LAST MAN ON EARTH! I AM NOT INSANE! I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH LONGER I CAN LAST OUT!” How anyone could see that and not be instantly compelled to read I Am Legend is beyond me.

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