If you have already listened to The November podcast you will know that we watched The Omega Man. I had every intention of reading the book that it was based on, I am Legend, for the podcast but was not able to find the time. I finally started and completed it this morning in about two hours. This is not a very long book, but it packs quite a punch.
I Am Legend was written by Richard Matheson in 1954. It is set twenty years in the future during the 1970’s. It tells the story of one man, Robert Neville, who thinks he is the last man on earth after a plague turns people into a version of vampires. Since it’s writing it has been adapted into movie form 3 times. The first adaptation Last Man on Earth, starred none other than Vincent Price. It was re-imagined once again in 1971 as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. Almost 40 years later in 2007 Will Smith starred in the third adaptation named directly for the book, I Am Legend.
I had watched two of these adaptations, The Omega Man and I Am Legend, prior to reading the book. It was interesting to see how Matheson’s vision was changed in each of these. In the book Richard Neville has lived through his first 6 months of being alone. We see him in a state where he is alone and surviving, but in a deteriorated mental state. He is assaulted in his home every night by vampires. The book makes it out that these vampires are the dead who have returned due to a bacteria they are infected with. These vampires carry with them many of the typical weaknesses we associate with vampires like sunlight, garlic, holy items, and stakes. As the story progresses we learn more about the disease and why the vampires have these weaknesses.
The vampires are portrayed differently in both adaptations I have watched. In The Omega Man they are shown as more crazy people who are members of an occult. These people cannot come out in the daylight, but they still retain much of their ability to think. In I Am Legend (the film) they are taken to the opposite extreme where they are shown as monsters with little to no humanity left, and no ability to reason. The book is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
As the book reaches the ending we find that Neville is not alone in this world, but shares it with a group of people who are infected, but no taken over by the disease. This new group is distrustful of Neville, and he realizes that there is no place in this new world for him. Matheson excels at giving the reader the horror elements that are found in the I Am Legend film, but retains more of the humanity that is found in The Omega Man. I feel his writing made for a good balance that allows you to more easily connect with Neville. As is the case with much apocalyptic literature Matheson does not delve to much into the past history of the disease Flashbacks are limited to Neville remembering his wife and daughter leading up to them becoming infected.
Overall this is an excellent story that pioneered of the classic dystopian futures, that of the sole survivor. While many have tried to imitate or adapt this story I believe that Matheson’s telling stands on it’s own.