Matheson’s 1954 masterpiece tells the story of Robert Neville, the lone survivor in a world succumbed to a disease that has turned mankind into vampires. Neville spends his nights spinning vinyl, drinking hard liquor, reminiscing, and struggling to maintain self control under the weight of a rollercoaster of emotions, while outside the vampires throw stones, bricks, and themselves at the house with the hopes of one night turning Neville into one of their own. Neville’s days are spent repairing his home caused by damage from the night before, running errands for essential supplies, and making pit stops to hunt and kill a few of the pale infected while they sleep in sunless areas like abandoned buildings. As far as a synopsis goes, let me stop there. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. You’ll thank me.
Much of what keeps I Am Legend so fresh to this day is Matheson’s portrayal of Robert Neville, the story’s protagonist. The character is realistic, familiar, and relatable. Throughout the book Neville goes back and forth with hope and helplessness—something any of us would do in his situation. There was a real human vulnerability with him. He wasn’t beyond being tempted by women—even if they were undead—or drowning his sorrows in alcohol.
Day after lonesome day, Neville deeply reflected on his existence, the loss of his family, mankind, a possible cure, the will to live, and society's own denial toward vampirism until it was too late: "...before science had caught up with the legend, the legend had swallowed science and everything."
As simple of an idea that I Am Legend is, Hollywood has produced three inadequate attempts at telling the story their way (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and the most recent Will Smith CGI fest, I Am Legend); so far nothing worthy of our time. As stand alones, I will admit they’re not complete turkeys. But considering their genesis, they’ve presented nothing but an insult to this wonderful book. Therefore, I implore you to stay clear of the films and pick up the book. Matheson's rich prose offers more than any movie will ever be able to provide.
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