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Thursday, December 13, 2007

"I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson

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I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson
Reviewed By: David Craddock

I Am Legend” might be one of the most frustrating survival stories ever written. Here we have a man, Robert Neville, who is not marooned on an island, nor is he buried in a tunnel, nor is he stuck in any of the typical places people tend to get stuck—Robert is stranded in New York City. Every day he wakes up, listens to music, has more than his fair share of alcoholic beverages, runs a variety of errands, and gathers food before settling in for the evening. He does not settle in because he is tired and has to get up for work the next morning, nor because he would like to relax and do a bit of reading before heading off to bed, nor for any of the reasons a normal person decides to turn in.

Robert Neville goes home at night and locks doors, barricades windows, and nestles a pistol in his lap because he has to. Because at dusk, they emerge. From their homes; from a stranger's basement; climbing out of the freezer; maybe even from a chimney. At dusk, the vampires surface and gather in their own town square, their own common meeting place—all around Robert Neville's house. All through the night does Robert sit, his hand shaking, drops of drink spilling from the glass held in his fingers. All through the night do they scratch at his door, claw at his windows, and call him, beg him to come out. When the sun begins to rise, they scramble back under their porches, into their freezers, into all their hiding places, so that they can rest for the coming night, when maybe, just maybe, their goal, the only goal their minds are now capable of producing, will be realized—bathing in Robert Neville's blood.

Poor Robert Neville: an entire city at his disposal, and yet he is truly unable to leave his house for fear of what darkness brings. To twist a phrase, a man's home is not his castle; in Robert Neville's case, his home is his island, and for all intents and purposes, he is stuck there without any hope of being saved.

I Am Legend” is the classic horror story written by revered author Richard Matheson. Additionally, it is also Hollywood's most recent attempt at butchering literature, a slaughter which begins on December 14, 2007. Will the movie be any good? Maybe. There is no doubt that Matheson's classic novel will stand the test of time regardless of how it fares on screen, but it is possible that the silver screen adaptation will triumph in the one area where “I Am Legend” disappoints: its conclusion.

After a terrible disease sweeps through the world, Robert Neville finds himself the seemingly sole survivor. Every day he wakes up, hunts and gathers food—marketplace freezers have long since ceased operating—drinks, reads, and listens to music. Sometimes, he even decorates his home, but not in the way you or I do. Instead of window chimes, Robert hangs garlic. Rather than hang a dream catcher above his bed for protection, Robert prefers to cuddle up with a variety of firearms.

Over the course of Matheson's inarguably short novel, Robert Neville is endeared to us for many reasons, but each and every one of them trace back to one core trait: he is human. Over the course of every single day, Robert wakes up and wonders why. Why get out of bed? Why continue to straighten the house, as if friends will be stopping over to socialize? Why get his hopes up that he will one day encounter a survivor, another human or beast that, for whatever reason, was able to survive the plague? Why put a stop to his new affinity for booze when his wife and daughter are no longer alive to steer him back onto the wagon?

There is no hope, there is no cure. What does Robert Neville have to look forward to? Death, just like everyone else; but unlike ordinary humans, Robert Neville will most likely perish violently, shredded and eaten at the hands of the nightwalkers.

Through Robert Neville, Matheson poses pertinent questions that never fail to give the reader pause. Who among us could be strong enough to willingly carry the bodies of our loved ones to a communal fire pit, where they are subsequently burned to avoid spreading the infection? Not Robert, who chooses to stash his wife's body in the backseat of his car and bury her in a distant field—a decision he comes to regret late one night.

Robert's humanity is expertly shown when he does, as expected, encounter another survivor—a dog, the first truly living creature Robert sees in days—no, weeks... months... years...? In the end, it doesn't seem to matter. Time has no meaning without appointments and meetings to keep. Every morning, Robert sets a bowl of food in his yard and sits on his porch, far enough to not alarm the dog when it appears to eat. For days—weeks? months?—Robert feeds the dog in exchange for a brief visit, contact with another living, breathing creature. When he sees the dog shamble across the street and dip its head to eat from its food bowl, Robert experiences excitement; when the dog finishes eating, it looks at him briefly, as if in silent thanks, before crossing the street and returning to its hiding place—and Robert experiences disappointment, sadness, loneliness.

Later on, Robert encounters a woman stumbling through a field, absently walking without anywhere to go. He runs at her, scaring her, and gives chase, eager to finally have human contact that doesn't involve leaving teeth marks. And yet, when Robert finally catches up with her, he is cold, callous, untrusting. Why? Because he has forgotten how to treat another human being. He's been by himself for so long that his yearning for human contact has been smothered by his uncertainty at sharing his living quarters with another person—a living quarters that he sometimes treasures, and sometimes loathes.

Like any human, Robert Neville takes stupid risks. He ventures farther than he intends one day and realizes too late that his watch has died, stuck at 3:00 P.M. when he believes that it must be closer to 5:30. Of course, the day is a cloudy, overcast one, and thus it is difficult to gauge time.

Robert races home, fighting off the vampires waiting for him around his house, and manages to get inside—but not before realizing that he has left the garage door open, a garage that holds his generator, his only source of electricity. Without electricity, his food will spoil, which would lead to his end.

Like any human, Robert Neville has needs. All the women in the world are dead, and it has been some time since Robert has had relations, has had his base urges satisfied. The female vampires play to his needs, prostrating themselves, moaning, calling out for him. Sure, willingly going out at night is a death wish at best, but what about the corpses? Could he actually tolerate relieving himself in them? Is that wrong?

The reader's journey alongside Robert Neville is intense, satisfying, and intensely satisfying—all the way until the very end, at which point Matheson seems to take an easy way out. Due to the abruptness of the conclusion, the reader is left wanting more, which in this case, is not meant in a positive light. Robert's journey seems unfinished, lacking in some way, and that is where the film edition could hopefully fix what is certainly broken.

Despite a disappointing ending, “I Am Legend” is still a fantastic, timeless story of horror and survival. Because it is being billed as a horror movie, bookworms interested in the movie are advised to read—or re-read—Richard Matheson's classic novel before venturing to theaters, sitting through a couple hours of doubtlessly poor translation, and declaring to a troupe of friends that "The book was better" as the party makes their way back to the car.

The book will always be better, but with any luck, the ending of the movie will leave viewers with more satisfaction.


Dave said...

I disagree with your critique of the ending of the novel. It's very fitting and well-done -- to a new society of vampires, he is the monster and must be destroyed. It's a bitter pill, but being the only human being left alive, what other ending could there be?

chrisd said...

That sounds like a great book, and the review has me very curious about the end.

Anonymous said...

I gotta say, I reckon you kind of gave away quite a few key scenes in the novel there, especially re the dog and woman.

I actually really liked the ending, it'll be interesting to see what Hollywood has done to what is essentially a very introverted story. No doubt they'll totally screw it up by just taking the visual themes and not the important emotional ones.

Anonymous said...

dave: I really liked that theme, but my gripe stems from not feeling a lot of resolution for the Neville character. True, many argue that the book really couldn't have ended any other way, but I think my main problem is that the novel is just too short. It isn't that I feel a good story requires 700+ pages; IAL was phenomenal for its length. Rather, the ending simply felt too abrupt.

But, hey, it's a review, and meant to be subjective. Only my opinion.

jebus: I tried to be as subtle and covert as possible, but the book is decades old. Yes, there will always be new readers, but:

A) How long is long enough to not give away at least some spoilers? The proverbial line in the sand has to be drawn at some point.

B) I think this generation will (sadly) be more familiar with the movie than the book; just an unfortunate sign of the times. The movie looks to be quite different from the book, so I didn't feel it improper to give away a few things, mostly because of reason (A), but also because, again, the movie looks to be a different experience.

Angela/SciFiChick said...

I doubt I'll ever get around to reading the book, but I can't wait to see the movie!

Anonymous said...

I am a fifteen year old girl and I was completely done with the sappy, apocalyptic, stories, that all just felt the.same. I needed something different and I am Legend satisfied
that. I believe this book was complete and actually made me think about human nature and who really is the "monster." I give this book eight stars and I think I will read this book over and over again. I felt it truly was a legend.


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