I am Legend: Rebuke and Reaffirmation of Prejudices

10 June 2014

The changes in cultural thought and the advances in technology that have taken place in the 40 years between the writing of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and its latest adaptation in 1994 have forced many changes between the text of the book and the movie. But rather than reading these changes as improvements over or deteriorations from the original text, Francesco Casetti argues that these differences form a conversation between the texts (Casetti 82.) The inconsistencies between Matheson’s book and the film adaptation attest to the differences inherent to the medium of delivery, the scientific advances within each medium, the cultural themes relevant at the time of adaptation, and the artistic vision of the adaptor. Each of these four categories allow for the exploration of the text in ways that the original either could not explore or chose not to explore. Neither version of the text is superior or inferior because by dent of adaptation they have become distinct and different texts that only happen to share some of the same characters and ideas. Using Casetti’s ideas about adaptation and mis-adaptation one is able to show that Richard Matheson’s novel I am legend and the 1995 film adaptation of I am Legend are two completely separate stories locked in discourse with one another about the same characters and similar themes but two completely separate intentions.

The novel and film versions of I am Legend are subject to differing pressures that inform the way that they are constructed. Casetti states, “…Film and literature are more revealing of the way in which subjects interact with each other as either addressers or addressees, than of an author’s ability to express him or herself (Casetti 82.) According to Casetti, a comparison between a book and it’s movie adaptation should not explore how they differ or which version is better, but should be a comparison of the differing points of view between the film and the book and what those differences say about their  particular view of the world. Richard Matheson’s story is told from inside the mind of Robert Neville. The reader experiences every thought, feeling, and need that Neville experiences. While this storytelling technique allows an immediate connection to the main character, this style of reporting is only available in a text based medium where the only way to experience the story is through written language. Because the reader may only experience the story through his or her imagination the author can successfully tell the story through any vantage point that can be imagined. However, the film version of I am Legend is significantly handicapped when it comes to the ways in which the story can be told. Voice over techniques and first person camera views have been developed to try to recreate the effect of being inside a character’s head but these techniques are clumsy at best and cannot be relied upon to deliver the entirety of the film. Therefore, the film version of I am Legend uses character interaction to deliver the same kind of connection between the viewer and Neville. The problem in the film is that much of the film takes place with only one human character. But this problem is solved in the film by having Robert Neville hold one-sided conversations with his dog and with manikins at the video store (I am Legend 1995.)

The one-sided conversations are an interesting idea that was brought into the film that was not included in the novel. The one-sided conversations deal with the problem of character interaction in a film that only has one character throughout most of the film. The one-sided conversations are kept to small talk that is common and recognizable by anyone that views the film. While unlocking the door to the video store Robert Neville says to the manikins, “Hey. Good morning Buzz good morning Fred. What are you guys doing here so early? Nice sweatshirt there Fred” (I am Legend 1995.) This type of conversation is so common that any of the viewers could supply the missing side of the conversation without even thinking about it. But the simplicity of this dialogue and the rote nature with which these types of conversations are had in today’s world communicates the isolation and sadness that Neville is going through that no amount of access to the character’s inner thoughts could convey. Additionally the conversations with inanimate objects also give a hint to Neville’s declining mental state without having to show this through the alcohol abuse that is used in the novel. Giving Robert Neville the dog from the beginning of the film serves similar purposes, and also gives a greater emotional hit to the viewer when the dog eventually dies.

The connection that Robert Neville has with female manikin allows the film to allude  to Neville’s growing for sexual companionship without having him fantasize about the naked bodies of the undead that gather outside of Neville’s house showing off their bodies in the novel (Matheson 19, 22, 33.)  The difficulty with portraying this idea in the same way as the novel comes back to the visual nature of the film medium. In text it is possible to describe the disrobing of a woman in a way that is not at all graphic or titillating, but there is no way to show nudity that is obviously recognizable as nudity in a film that is not graphic. Not only is it in good taste for the film not to show nudity, but also the film version of I am Legend is rated PG-13 and nudity would have caused the rating to go up. Therefore, pressure from a ratings agency, the difference between film and text, and addition of the one-sided conversations all contribute to the decision to show Neville’s growing need for sexual companionship in a more family friendly way.

The most striking point of separation between the film and the novel is the general theme of each. The novel’s theme revolves around the question of what it means to be human and how one should treat the other. In the end of the novel Robert Neville comes to the realization that he had been wrong the whole time and the undead that he had been killing had just as much right to life as he did (Matheson 153, 156.) However, the film version ends without Robert Neville ever coming to the realization that the zombies were intelligent and deserving of life. Neville sees the way that the zombies are able to set up traps for him, work together to try to capture or kill him, and he sees that they domesticated zombie hunting dogs, yet he never realizes that they are evolving into a new and legitimate society (I am Legend 1995.) After he sees one of the undead poke his head into the light to try to save his captured mate, Neville misinterprets the creature’s action. Neville says, “Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent” (I am Legend 1995.) Neville ends up killing himself along with a handful of undead rather than come to grips with the idea that that the undead are the future of the human race. But just because Robert Neville is not able to see the truth does not mean that it is not in the film to be seen. The final words of the film are, “Dr. Robert Neville dedicated his life to the discovery of a cure and the restoration of humanity. On September 9th, 2012,… he discovered that cure. And at 8:52, he gave his life to defend it….This is his legend” (I am Legend 1995.) Therefore, the ending of the film version of I am Legend is essentially stating that killing people just because they are different or other is completely acceptable. In fact, the final scenes of the film are a celebration of the destruction of an entire new civilization.

The discourse between the novel and the film adaptation of I am Legend shows that the time has not been kind to main implications of the story. Casetti says, “A reappearance is a new discursive event that locates itself in a certain time and space in society, one that, at the same, caries within itself the memory of an earlier discursive event” (Casetti 82.)  And the filmmakers do make one more addition to the discursive event by releasing an alternate ending to the film that addresses the discordance at the end of the theatrical release. The alternate ending allows Neville to realize the error of his ways and release the captive female (I am Legend 1995.) The alternate allows the main intentions of the film adaptation to be something other than the justification of genocide.

Works Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

I am Legend. Lawrence, F. Warner Bros. Pictures: Roadshow Entertainment, 2007. Film.

Matheson, Richard. I am legend. New York: ORB, 1995. Print.