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Don't Criticize I Am Legend For Being Different Than Richard Matheson's Book

by
December 11, 2007

Don't Criticize I Am Legend For Being Different Than Richard Matheson's Book

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.

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  • My problem isn't that they are deviating from the book so much its that once again instead of giving us a thought provoking movie they are turning it into a Wil Smith action movie. They did it with I, Robot and now with I am Legend. Perhaps it will be a good movie but for me personally I'd much rather see less action and more being true to the original story. I doubt there will ever be another I, Robot movie which follows the book more closely and now that there are three I am Legend movies I doubt there will be another. Perhaps I'm wrong and perhaps there will and then I'll be interested. As it is, my guess this is going to be just like I, Robot... completely forgettable in the long run.
  • I'm interested in the movie, frankly. I read the Matheson story, and it was good, but it is a story that should modernize and adapt quite well. I think that the closer they stay to the book, the more likely the film would have bombed, due to the amount of time you spend lamenting in his head. It's a very charactercentric story, and that can be hard to relate on film (clarification: for a major release motion picture meant to appeal to the masses). Making him a virologist saves you all the mind numbing time spent learning about viruses that he does in the book, and would actually make it somewhat more believable as a viewer, because you think: "Of course he could do that, it's what he did for a living." The big part is that there is a LOT more story to the plot that wasn't told in the book, and that's something that I would like to see (the scene of the bridges being blown up is encouraging). And I disagree with John above somewhat. I do agree that this seems like I, Robot in a lot of ways, but I don't think that movie bad. I think the story was very good in the framework that it used. I think there needs to be better understanding in the industry about the difference between a screen adaptation of a book, and a movie simply based on a story. Good comparison: The Green Mile vs. The Shawshank Redemption. One of each kind, and both phenomenal, because they were done right.
  • Heckle
    I am trying to go into this movie with an open mind. But when a movie steals its title from a book and then completely changes the story from the book i have a problem with that. Lord of the Rings didn't go out and say...hmmm...lawrence fishbourne is a really big actor now...lets make him frodo and set the movie in NewYork and sauron is a drug pusher who is trying to take over. The main idea of a powerful being trying to take over is still there so its the same story. The book has more than the idea of "the last man on earth". There is more of a story there than that idea alone. So if you want to make a movie about a last man on earth call it something else. It isn't I Am Legend. It may be a good movie and thats why im going to see it and try not to judge. But saying it is I Am Legend is certainly a step in the wrong direction.
  • All what I care is Will Smith will be the last man on the planet without any other men (As the trailers show and make us believe ) ..Because it is the most strange feeling when he have a planet in his hand and he continue to be alone ... If you want to be exactly the same as the book and have nothing new in it then don't watch the movie and continue reading the book ... The Omega man were not exactly the same as the book too ... why this one should be the same as it ... ? If the movie steal the name and it is the opposite of the book then I will be against it too ...but if there is just a different ending or a small changes to pass with our new world then I think we should accepted with a big mind and without hate or anger . Remember the classics will be classics for ever no matter if the made another 5 I am legend ... and don't forget the man who wrote the book as just a human being like us and it is not mean no one can have the same idea again or have something similar to him with different ending or more acceptable for our situation in 2007 -2008 :-)
  • Emrys
    I agree that this movie could turn out to be a bad one if it's just another will smith action flick, but honestly I don't think it is going to. I believe Will Smith is finally developing into a very good actor and I am interested to see how he does with this. It was said that this somewhat will smith's version of a cast away movie. That gets me much more excited because I believe when an actor has to carry the movie with their own weight it can really bring on some terrific acting. As far as keeping to Matheson's book, thee book is actually very action packed. I remember scenes in the book that I am hoping they make even more intense then they were when I read them. I believe the "story" is perfect to adapt to today's world, because in this day and age of so much technology in our lives it really has an even more profound effect on what we believe it would be like. I for one am very excited to see this movie and I can't wait to see which direction they have taken it. I think the thing I like most about remakes and adaptations is the re imagining of someones great story. Sometimes it can turn out horribly, but other times it can be amazing. :)
  • A book is a book and a movie is a movie, they are two different beasts. I’m not particularly interested in seeing something that tries to cram, word for word, the contents of a book into a screenplay, thus making the movie a diluted version of the original. I’m all for adaptation but I like filmmakers to put their own spin on things. Otherwise what’s the point? Might as well just read the book if it’s going to be that similar. This is why I think Watchmen is bound to be a let down. Snyder is so adamant about translating the comic straight to film he’s forgetting that a comic is an entirely different medium to a film. The whole thing, 80s setting and all, reeks of a guy without the confidence or intelligence to ADAPT the material.
  • miracle disease
    I must agree with WillR... a book is a book and a movie is a movie... different beasts.. different ways and means to entertain us... like lord of the rings, if you have read the book, a lot of it were modified in some ways to better suit it as a movie, otherwise, after watching fellowship of the ring, you'll never wish to see two towers.
  • Heckle
    Modification is fine. But this movie appears to be only taking two things from the book. The title and the last man on earth idea. The rest has been changed. So dont call it I am Legend. Hollywood is so lazy they couldnt even come up with their own title.
  • chris
    Theres also a low budget Mark Dascoscos actioner called 'I am Omega'.. its not very good though :o( I hope it will be a good film. Movie makers can't win in situations like this, for everyone who says they are wrong for simply transferring the book to the screen (ie 300, Sin City) there's someone who says they were wrong to add their own ideas and make changes (ie Lotr, V for Vendetta) Personally, theres room in my mind to enjoy both books and movie versions of the same stories, in some cases i hate the movie and love the book, in others its the other way around!
  • scotty
    Ive always read from the start it was more a remake of Omega Man than a direct adaptation of I am Legend. Which in its self is all well and good but (like heckle says) why use the books name? In my eyes all this does it stops anyone being able to do a true version of the books because the name has now been associated with this movie. Its a shame.
  • victor Martinez
    Why can't they just make movies that makes us think, rather than the actio based rubbish. Imagine if Blade runner had been re-made now, we could expect an action sequence every ten mins. Instead Blade runner is now thought of as a classic. Do we really think that 20 years from now we look back on I am legend and think of it as a classic.
  • Movies and books both tell stories, using different metaphors. The impression that I have of this movie is that it's going to be part vampire film, with a man going on a journey. Will Smith is the last man on earth - looking for answers like any of us would in this situation. One marketing technique the film is making is to tie in the film to religion. I don't now why though........Time Warner created a campaign around the phrase "god still loves us" which appears in the movie. It's a photoshop contest too. http://www.filmplug.com/blog/2007/12/god_still_loves_i_am_legend.html
  • lbbb
    If you have read this book then the movie is quite simply unacceptable. I find it shameful that a beautiful novella was wh*red out to modern hollywood. Let me put this in perspective. This summer I read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of my favorite books. For goodness sakes Stephen King credits it as a major influence to his work. If you haven't read the book you owe it to yourself to experience the quick read. Anyways, I look forward to this movie for four months. I honestly thought people would come away from it with a new perspective on what it means to see oneself as a dominant majority- when clearly the minority. When I finally see it, the plot is so different I couldn't have imagined it to be any more non-related. If it wasn't called I Am Legend then I would have assumed it was based on something else. No joke. They even changed the WHOLE explanation for the title "I Am Legend" Sadly movie watchers will never be challenged and excited in the same way the author intended. Cross another movie watcher off the list who ever gives a movie a free pass without looking into it before going.
  • miklos harsszegi
    they made alternative ending to be able to shoot "I Am Legend II" Be ready for different storylines in the 21th century,to audience will be interactively able to control the way the story goes with hundreds of possibilities ,all will be premade, interactive and billions will be spend and people will die of hunger in the real world......while the others will sit in a box and watching another box. WAKE UP PEOPLE!
  • Adam
    "own idea and story?" Without the book it wouldn't have a story or plot at all. Anyone can clearly see that this is not an original idea. The book is so short that the director could have just used it as a literal script. I could have directed a better movie.

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