Ever since I reviewed the movie I Am Legend last year, I’ve been meaning to read the book. After finishing Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, I wanted something a little lighter (figuratively and literally), so I decided it was finally time to give I Am Legend a read. Not only is the book far more interesting than the movie, but it’s also far more meaningful.
I Am Legend goes much deeper than just fantasy and horror. It’s a very well written novel which explores the psychological challenges of solitude, and concepts of human (and inhuman) perspective and compassion. I’m not surprised that I Am Legend refuses to translate into a movie (it was first adapted in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, then in 1971 as The Omega Man, and in 2007 as I Am Legend). Since the most recent attempt replaces pages and pages of Robert Neville’s ruminations and discoveries with special effects, suspense, and heroism, a great deal of the interest of the novel is lost.
Without giving too much away, there are three important differences between the novel and its most recent adaptation:
- In the book, Neville isn’t a scientist. He’s a blue-collar worker at some sort of plant (the book never discloses what kind), and he is forced to become an amateur scientist in order to understand what’s happening around him. Neville is often frustrated by his inability to understand what he reads and to operate the equipment he finds until he eventually overcomes his own self-doubt.
- The creatures in the book are vampires rather than zombie-like. This may seem like a minor distinction, but in fact, it changes the story significantly. Initially, the vampires in the novel seem like run-of-the-mill, blood-sucking clichés, but in fact, Neville is able to scientifically explain their behavior which has been misinterpreted and canonized into legend over the years. It turns out that there’s nothing mythical or fantastic about vampires when examined under the scrutiny of objective, modern science.
- The title of the work actually makes sense in the book whereas I don’t think it ever comes through in the movie. The alternate ending of the movie does a credible job of at least acknowledging the theme of the story, but it can’t possibly capture the gravity of the final three words of the novel: "I am legend."
I don’t want to sound overly critical of the movie, especially after giving it a good review last year. They are both, in fact, good stories, and both very much worth your time. Just don’t think that just because you’ve seen the movie, you know the story. The book will still surprise you both in terms of plot and depth.