The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's great novel, about the last survivor of a plague which has caused a deadly mutation of the human species, has now been filmed three times. I have not seen the first version, The Last Man on Earth (1964), an Italian production starring Vincent Price. It was scripted by Matheson himself, but his private Alan Smithee pseudonym, "Logan Swanson", was substituted in the credits, presumably because of liberties taken by the makers.

The second version, The Omega Man (1971), is one of three big-budget science fiction ventures at the turn of the seventies to benefit from the presence of Charlton Heston; the other two being Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973). On balance The Omega Man is probably the least satisfactory of the three, thanks largely to a maudlin ending which the new Will Smith version appears, predictably enough, to have reprised with minor variations. Still, The Omega Man remains very watchable, and I have it to thank for inducing me to hunt down the book, thus initiating a Matheson addiction which persists to this day.

The film's protagonist, Robert Neville, is a military scientist, apparently the only human being immune to the germ-warfare epidemic which has killed almost everyone else and turned the other survivors into photophobic homicidal maniacs. They are initiated into a black-cowled order of Luddites called The Family, led by one Jonathan Matthias who, before the apocalypse, was a TV newscaster: one of the film's many fine touches. Neville's ongoing battle with The Family, for whom he epitomises the evils of science and machinery, is interrupted by the appearance of a group of relatively healthy hippy types, whose partial immunity he is able to augment by using his blood as a serum. Although Neville dies at the end, the serum is preserved, thus enabling the Family to die in peace and the hippies to light out for the mountains and, no doubt, breed like rabbits and found a brave new world.

The book is better.

In the novel, Neville is not a military scientist; in fact, all we know about his working life before the war is that he was employed at "the plant". During the war he was stationed in Panama, where two possibly vital things happened: he had a large cross tattooed on his chest one night when drunk, and he was bitten by a vampire bat. Later in the book, Neville speculates that the bat's bite may be the reason for his immunity to the plague; he killed the bat, and perhaps he was the first human being it attacked.

Obviously, this kind of thing has no place in the film versions. In all three films, Neville is a military scientist, and hence has some moral responsibility for the catastrophe; in The Omega Man, it is Neville's privileged military status that allows him access to the drug that saves him from the plague. A last survivor who is just some poor bastard caught up in the machinery, and who owes his survival to sheer chance, is clearly not an appropriate cinematic identification figure.

The plague in the book is specifically a plague of vampires. They have long teeth, they drink blood, and they hate garlic and mirrors (although they do have reflections, and not all of them are dead). The story opens some five months after the apocalypse, with Neville, devastated by the deaths of his wife and child, spending his days hunting for sleeping vampires and pounding stakes through them. After dark he tries to distract himself with classical music and occasional drunken frenzies while the creatures besiege his house, which he has fortified and equipped with a generator; and something that used to be his next-door neighbour gives a ritual cry: "Come out, Neville!"

This horrible stasis is broken when Neville begins asking questions. Supposedly, in order to kill a vampire you have to hammer the stake through its heart; but Neville is not a biologist and doesn't know exactly where the heart is. Many of the vampires' attributes, such as the aversion to mirrors and garlic, could be explained on psychological grounds without any need for the supernatural. Other attributes, such as the ability to change into bats or wolves, the vampires have never displayed. Neville starts to research systematically, and eventually discovers that the vampires are victims of a blood disease, caused by a bacterium with a life cycle so ingeniously worked out that it's easy to share Neville's reluctant admiration of the "dirty little bastard" he has isolated on a microscope slide.

If this were the extent of the book's originality, it would still be one of the more innovative vampire novels, easily on a par with such works as Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and S P Somtow's Vampire Junction. Matheson's style is spare but never banal, effectively evoking Neville's unparalleled grief and loneliness without recourse to sentiment, soap opera or action-hero cool. However, what makes the book great is its ending. If you haven't read it, you may care to rush out and buy it now, and come back to this afterwards.

Having discovered the answer to the vampire plague and arrived at a certain emotional equilibrium, Neville is shocked one day to see a woman walking in the daylight, and further shocked when, after a fragile trust has grown up between them, he examines her blood and finds the germ in it. The vampires - the living ones, who have the disease but are not reanimated corpses - have been doing some research of their own, and have formed a functioning society of nocturnal, blood-dependent people. The woman, Ruth, has been sent as a spy. She warns Neville to get out, but there is absolutely nowhere for him to go. When the vampires come for him, he fights them and is mortally wounded. Ruth, as a member of the new society's elite, is able to visit him and give him pills to ease his passing (and prevent a barbaric public execution). He looks out at the new people of the earth and realises what he is to them: something that comes while they sleep and leaves as evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones. The last man on earth passes into legend as a vampire to the vampires.

It's one of the most devastating payoffs I have ever encountered; naturally, the Hollywood bloodsuckers have dropped it with all the alacrity of a script doctor draining the interest from Planet of the Apes. George A Romero's Living Dead films were directly inspired by I Am Legend, and they certainly don't fail to rub in the Them-as-Us part of the message, as expressed by Neville himself in drunken rumination ("Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from the child? ... Really now, search your soul, lovie - is the vampire so bad?"). Still, even Romero doesn't go as far as Matheson did in 1954. Romero's zombies are a distorted mirror image of ourselves, epitomising and satirising the greed, stupidity and violence of the living; Matheson's vampires are the living, for whom we ourselves will soon be no more than a tale to frighten children.


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