“I Am Legend”: the story of a property that will never get an artistically satisfying big screen treatment (sub-title: I really could have come up with a better title for this post)


There it is, Diane; the leaked trailer for “I Am Will Smith and You Will Go See My Latest Blockbust-“…er, “I Am Legend.”

Perhaps I was confused about the title because the Richard Matheson story I read (just a couple years ago – I am hopelessly behind the times, in all senses of the expression) had a plot and feel that does not much resemble this very serious yet highly crowd-pleasing trailer.  Here we have civilization collapsing and a great monument to human endeavors (the Brooklyn Bridge) being destroyed; there we have a plot that starts after the apocalypse, not before or during it, and makes no mention of mega-explosions.  Here we have exciting scenes of cars blowing up and apparently monstrous super-vampires (genetically engineered with DNA stolen from the “28 Days Later” zombies) coming relentlessly after our hero; there we have very little action and a whole lotta talk talk talk, as the Matheson hero has to negotiate with the vampires all around him who are just as smart as he is and only marginally more blood-lusting.  Here we have Will Smith with a gun; there we have Charlton Heston, who makes guns possible.

Sorry, I got confused again.  That’s “The Omega Man,” the previous “Legend” film incarnation.  What made that movie make more sense to me, though, was that they didn’t call it “I Am Legend.”  The plot had little to do with the source story except for the basic man-alone-in-a-post-apocalyptic-wasteland-hunted-by-evil-monster-people premise.  And that was fine.  As soon as you saw the new title and Heston’s grimacing, sweaty jaw, there was really no danger that you would think it would be a faithful “Legend” adaptation.  Of course it would not be.  It would be Matheson by way of “Planet of the Apes.”  With a twist of soylent lime-green.

By calling this new one what they called it, they beg the question of faithfulness that “Omega Man” swatted away.  And this trailer is already supplying the answer: no, we’re totally not being faithful, dude.  Blow shit up!  Fast zombie vampire whatevers!  More guns!  Exciting!

Then again…

I’m deploying a lot of sarcasm here on a pretty soft target.  Maybe it’s overkill.  This movie could be entertaining in that deeply flawed “War of the Worlds” way.  For me, at least, the jury is still out; I may yet go see this one.  Will Smith isn’t cracking wise in the trailer and hey, I do still love explosions and guns, so this one remains on the table until I have better intel that puts me off of it (and/or my lunch). 

Also, despite my efforts to conceal this fact in the previous five-plus paragraphs, I actually don’t like “I Am Legend,” the story.  Nor do I really enjoy or respect Richard Matheson.  He seems to me like one of those prototypical idea guys that pop up every so often in the world of sci fi – someone who had some very creative and influential concepts rattling around in his brain but perhaps wasn’t the ideal person to put them on paper.  In other words, Phillip K. Dick, but less Phillip K. Dickish.  I haven’t read much Matheson, but what I’ve read struck me as a good idea improperly handled, with many poorly thought-out plot elements and some misguided character work.  “I Am Legend” is a perfect example of this and many people regard it as his best work.  Certainly it’s his most famous.  Which explains why we’re staring down the barrel/trailer of film version #3, and it looks to be only marginally more faithful than the previous two – which is to say, not really faithful at all.

You see, “I Am Legend” would not make a good movie – not if you just wrote a screenplay that was very true to the story, anyway.  Even slapping Will Smith and an explosion in there wouldn’t dress it up enough.  The plot is thin and porous like ratty old cheesecloth.  The conceit of the intelligent, possibly not even evil vampires is something that could have gone over in the B-movie heyday of the 60s and 70s (when they instead Hestonized it and made the baddies into pure evil mutants); but in a blockbuster of today, it lacks dramatic heft and is too clearly located in the world of ideas.  Cinematically, it fails.  As much as I am tired of running, jumping, frothing crowds of crazies, they bring a visceral visual impact that scattered chatty vampires (that can pass as human, can you imagine?) do not.  And that ending – it wouldn’t go over in a modern movie the way it could have in one of those grim Heston vehicles.  (Which makes it more of a shame that they sweetened it up for “The Omega Man.”  If “Soylent Green” can end with soylent green being people and “Planet of the Apes” can end with it being Earth all along, why can’t “The Omega Man” die at the hands of a mob of vampires, having never met a fellow surviver and leaving no hope for humanity?  It was a wasted opportunity, Chuck! …But I digress.)

The best part of “I Am Legend” on the page was its nasty little ending, which only works in the context of an interesting failure of a story that is over-ambitious with its psychology, philosophy, and science.  To make a good and financially viable movie of this material in this decade you’d have to compromise most of what made the story what it was, which would mean probably losing the ending, which brings me back to this:

Why call this movie “I Am Legend”?  Just call it “I Am Will Smith and You Will Go See My Latest Blockbuster.”  It has a certain ring to it.


One Response to “I Am Legend”: the story of a property that will never get an artistically satisfying big screen treatment (sub-title: I really could have come up with a better title for this post)

  1. sam says:

    how can you say Richard Matheson wasnt the right guy to write “i am legend”…
    he is probally one of the biggest sci-fi writers…
    most writers always say richard was a influence on there storys, so if thats true, he cant be that bad…
    i agree thought that the new ” i am legend” film, wont be very good because i think that it will not follow the book

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