Sunday, December 02, 2007

Book Review: I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend has been a classic of the horror genre since its release in 1954. It is about to be released as a new motion picture starring Will Smith. Being a fan of Mr. Smith and having heard good things about Matheson's book, I thought I'd give it a try.

This will actually be the second attempt to bring Legend the big screen. The first was The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. I will be most interested to see how Hollyweird will change the book. The most obvious changes are a shift in location from Los Angeles to New York and the race of the protagonist.

So, what about the book? Legend is a stark tale about one man's struggle to survive in a world that has been nearly emptied of people; those people who do survive have become vampires. Thus, the early part of the 160-page story starts with the hero, Robert Neville, living a one-man-survivalist existence in a near-gothic world of garlic, wooden stakes, and crosses in order to keep the evil at bay. His home is festooned with garlic, boarded and locked up, and stocked with food, fuel, and a generator to keep life in at least one place safe and sane. He also keeps himself stocked up on garlic thanks to a greenhouse. In many ways, Legend can be seen as an analogy for being a single survivor in a post-nuclear world. Neville himself is a sometimes-flawed protagonist, often temperamental and self-destructively drunk. His morality, such as it is, centers around keeping himself alive and looking for ways to kill the vampires, at which he is sometimes successful. The driving action of the book is Neville's various successful and unsuccessful attempts to learn about and defeat his enemies. There is also some--not much--grim humor in Legend.

What's interesting about Matheson's treatment of vampires is his manner of providing a scientific explanation for their existence. DNA was a recent discovery at the time the book was written, but Matheson is able to use then-current biology and germ theory and chemistry to offer explanations for, and methods for fighting against, a population composed of vampires.

I refuse to play spoiler on the ending, mostly because I am curious about how today's writers will handle it, but Matheson and his protagonist remain scientific to the end. This might be seen as one of the many dark visions offered up by the 1950s, a time when we were all supposed to be so innocent and naive. However, Matheson's writing, while nearly profanity-free by today's standards, leaves little doubt about the brutality that human beings can resort to and the moral codes they will accept in the name of survival. What sort of fate will 2007 Hollywood prescribe for Matheson's deeply flawed, yet engaging vampire killer? I am not a huge fan of horror films, but I found this book absolutely fascinating, and I respect Will Smith enough to give the movie a try. Besides, how bad could it be with a PG-13 rating, anyway?

Matheson's best-known work, besides Legend, might be the Twilight Zone Episode "To Serve Man," where a group of benevolent aliens come to Earth bearing a single, fair-sounding text to bring peace: "To Serve Man." The punchline ending of that episode, of course, is that it's really a cookbook. Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" had the distinction of appearing in the Twilight Zone TV series (starring William Shatner) and the Twilight Zone Movie (starring John Lithgow).

Matheson's story The Incredible Shrinking Man became one of the classics of '50s schlock sci-fi moviemaking, but it also served as an analogy for man's increasing loss of power. Another amazing book of his is What Dreams May Come, which also has been made into a visually stunning movie starring Robin Williams. One of the great things about the special effects of the 21st century is that some of the serious classics of science fiction and fantasy can now be portrayed realistically on the big screen. I hope to see some of the other classics in the genre filmed in the future. For better or worse, we are now living in the future that many of the Golden Age SF authors wrote about, once upon a time. Even in this high-tech world of ours, those geniuses of the Industrial Age still have lessons to teach us. Richard Matheson is one of the best teachers.

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