Don't Criticize I Am Legend For Being Different Than Richard Matheson's Book
by Alex Billington
December 11, 2007
One of the biggest topics of discussion surrounding the upcoming release of I Am Legend this Friday is how much of a massive disconnect there is between the Hollywood movie and Richard Matheson's superb original book. While everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion, the issue at hand simply lies in Warner Brothers choosing to name it I Am Legend, rather than the fact that this movie is its completely own entity with its own idea and story. I Am Legend is not a direct word-for-word adaptation of the book, but rather, as screenwriter Akiva Goldsman points out, it's a mesh combination of the book and the other 1971 movie, Omega Man.
Our friends at Rope of Silicon have a great set of articles as well critiquing the film's direct connection to Richard Matheson's book (read this introduction on how exactly they differ). These are worth reading, however what is most important is that you look at what Brad Brevet had to say coming out of the film.
"First off, my assumption was correct, this film only uses Matheson's book as a framework, and like The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man it should not have used I Am Legend as the title. This film is hardly Matheson's short story. However, it isn't all that bad."
"Unfortunately I Am Legend's ending is not only different than Matheson's it does take the opportunity to tell you what happens next and it leaves you a little sour, especially after the first half of this movie pretty much knocks it out of the park."
While I've seen the film myself and won't exactly say that it's perfect in all ways, I will say that on its own it's an awesome movie. It doesn't need to have a direct connection with Richard Matheson's book to be good. The choice of Will Smith in the lead was the start down that path, and I'm sure before that, Goldsman's script was written more with "ideas" from the book than direct references. However, this is a Will Smith movie based around his character which is undoubtedly different: he is a brilliant virologist who discovers that men made virus that killed off humanity and turned every into vampires, while in the book he is an alcoholic who worked at a plant in California. Is it necessarily bad that these two aren't the same? Not really, because Will Smith makes it his Cast Away-like movie and it's written superbly around that character anyway, as Brad attests to in the quotes above.
Jumping back to our interview with the screenwriter of this, Akiva Goldsman, he explains a few aspects of adapting I Am Legend in some important quotes. When asked about adapting novels from such prolific writers and how he goes about doing that, his response somewhat explains how this turned into what it is - something quite different from Richard Matheson's book.
"Fundamentally I think that there's an obligation to attempt to be true in spirit to the source. And you have to make a determination about what the source is…"
"I do think that in any case, what you have to do, is read, read, read the object, and then put it away. And attempt to craft the story in your head. Even if it's just as you remember it. So you sort of put it through the filter of your own screenwriting template."
Another great explanation that Akiva gives is in the story of how all of this came together, and how from the very start this was a hybrid, not a direct translation.
"What happened was, obviously Richard wrote the novel, then there were two movies. There's a Vincent Price movie called The Last Man on Earth, and then there's Omega Man. Then Mark Protosevich adapted I Am Legend based on both the novel and the Omega Man screenplay. So right from the birth of this incarnation it was always a hybrid. And as we move forward, we stole amply from both objects in order to try and create whatever this version of the story was."
Obviously what we're seeing here is not how well someone can take what Matheson wrote and turn those words exactly into a screenplay, but rather Goldsman's and Protosevich's abilities to write their own screenplay with their own story and imagining. This could be bad, obviously, but the result is something purely entertaining and purely cinematic on its own. The reason why this works so well takes us back to Goldsman again, who points out the cinematic aspect. "The most literal adaptation of the novel is probably a movie that's so small that it would probably require a different time in the movie business to make it. Or you could say it was made, either in the Vincent Price piece earlier and then it sort of has evolved through things like 28 Days Later into sort of these smaller iterations of that same genre."
As with all movies and especially with I Am Legend, you can't forget that this is its own thing. It's not the book, it's a movie, and it's made to be entertaining in a particular way, even if that differs from the book. Certain books and stories lend themselves to being perfectly adapted word-for-word, while others are best used as frameworks for more cinematic stories, such as this. With I Am Legend, I think the end result is something that does stay very true to the spirit of the original Matheson book, while still being a completely separate experience on its own that was fully entertaining.
If you're looking for some particularly in-depth discussion on this matter, I'd suggest you read Rope of Silicon's articles (part 1 and part 2). I'd also encourage anyone to leave a comment below with their thoughts on this prior to seeing the movie, as I'm certain they'll differ by the time you end up actually seeing it.