I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Review by Murray Graham
A third film adaptation of Richard Matheson's short (151 pages) novel has been in development for some time, and as the film began shooting this March with Will Smith in the lead role, it seemed an appropriate time to review this classic.
It is a classic SF scenario—our hero Robert Neville is the last survivor of a plague that has infected earth's population and turned everyone into blood hungry monsters. He is the last man on earth, with the caveat that while there is one man left, there is no lack of vampires. His days are spent hunting them, his nights are spent holed up in his fortified house in effort to survive until dawn.
This novel is very internal, understandably, as Neville is the only character onstage for much of the book. While there are several exciting sequences that will transfer well to film, much of the internal dialogue concerning Neville's thoughts and speculations on the nature of the disease seem overly stilted, and slow the tale down more than they should. The writing is somewhat dated (the original was published in 1954), and even clumsy in a few places, but the novel stands up fairly well, overall. Matheson explores several aspects of the consequences of being the last of a kind, and for the most part does a creditable job of showing his character's conflicts and emotions.
The ending is a classic of SF and noteworthy in that it avoids the happily-ever-after of most writers. If there is a single fault that the book possesses, it is that it's one of those books that left me wanting more, not less, and that many of the issues that Matheson treats in a somewhat cursory manner could well be expanded to the profit of the overall book.
Still, it is a solid and seminal work, and the influences of this story are to be seen throughout much of the present horror genre in both print and film. It might make an interesting and illuminating project for aspiring writers and screenwriters to read the book and then view the three films made from the book: The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price; The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston; and the upcoming remake with Will Smith. That said, it is worthy in and of itself of reading, and amply repays the reader for the time spent.
Murray Graham lives in Canada, where he reads everything, writes history, and occasionally dips a toe into other writing genres. His first love remains speculative fiction, which he has read for over 40 years.