I have just finished the novella I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Like World War Z, the Hollywood movie version of I Am Legend is nothing like the book. The movie, which stars Will Smith in the role of Robert Neville—the last “uninfected” man on Earth—features plagued multitudes as “thinking” zombies, whereas the book defers to a new species of intelligent vampire that has morphed from the virus-infected human race. The book is overwhelmingly sad and disturbing and presents a philosophy that is as horrible as it is truthful.
The book and the movie are alike in the heart-breaking dog character—the last of his kind, and the last of the friends of Mankind. In both movie and book, the dog’s death moved me to tears. While it is possibly the worst moment of Neville’s dreadful story, the entire ambience of his tale is lump-in-throat. Worse than the constant fear of the creatures out there, the relentless worry of checking and re-checking his safeguards in here, the madness of frustration as he tries over and again to understand the virus, is the thought of his unimaginable loneliness—perhaps the best reason why the loss of the dog is so terrible.
The only thread where the movie could be superior to the book is the portrayal of Neville’s debilitating isolation. The whole world now belongs to him. Literally. All its wealth, power, knowledge, and history is his, and he can take anything he wants with impunity. But it means nothing to him, and this is depicted with bitter poignancy by the countless thousands of dollars strewn about a bank’s floor, trodden underfoot, muddy, torn, and rotting in the elements. At the end of the day, what Neville truly wants, NEEDS, is the company of another human being, and takes to irrational acts of futility like setting up mannequins and talking to them, repeatedly watching Shrek and old news casts, carrying on conversations with his faithful dog and, of course, talking to himself. Neville’s hitting on the female mannequin and weeping when she (it) will not/cannot answer him is gut-wrenching, and the audience sees acutely that he is driven to despair by his hopeless solitude.
It is the unmerciful philosophy of the new-world-from-the-old created by Richard Matheson that is so profound and maintains its appeal, and it is this: Human beings had their shot, and they screwed it up. They went too far in their abject disrespect for Nature. They did something foolish without thinking of the consequences, motivated by greed and an outrageous sense of entitlement, and caused the irreversible, incurable, and absolute beyond any salvation, extinction of the human race as it exists today. There is no possible recovery. And that is the message of the book—human beings can destroy themselves and be forever lost. There is no ray of hope in that, and the perception of utter hopelessness experienced in the book through the character of Robert Neville is overwhelming.
By not sharing Matheson’s powerful admonition with the audience, Hollywood dropped the ball so completely that they should have just called the movie something else—because it wasn’t I Am Legend. It’s not enough that Robert Neville dies—there is a woman and her son who escape to a safe place where the human race is already starting again. Neville—by virtue of the fact that there are other living human beings—actually dies an incomprehensibly foolish death, instead of relinquishing Manhattan as a dead zone, and choosing to survive in order to continue his fight against the virus, but at a safe distance. It’s inexplicable since, in the book version, the woman who actually appears one day is revealed to be a vampire who has developed a tolerance for sunlight with the help of medication that the vampires themselves have created. She is sent to spy on Neville, and it is discovered to the horror of Neville and the audience that the vampires are far from mindless blood-suckers, and are instead organized, intelligent, and not completely unlike the humans they once were. The woman is capable of compassion for Neville, and allows him to commit suicide rather than be executed. Because Neville is immune to the virus that turns folks into vampires, he is now the monster, the Other—that Thing, since day is now night, that hunts them while they sleep—and must be destroyed.
So, now adding to my recent contemplations on fear and the politics of the monstrous, I will add loneliness and despair. And I will also point out that the above is self-inflicted. The monsters have arisen, so far, after humans metaphorically shoot themselves in the foot, and then wage war on those same “monsters of repercussion.” Monsters of repercussion… Very interesting, and I begin to feel like I am closing in on something. Hmmm….
Next, I am reading about another monster of human imagination… Looking at fear, despair, loneliness, life beyond control, moral ambiguity, and becoming the Other, I will be exploring the Werewolf. My first stop will be Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, followed by Jonathon Maberry’s The Wolfman. If I have time, I will look into Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. Aside from Guy Endore’s book, and several very good short stories from the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Allen Poe, I have not found many what could be considered classics on the topic of werewolves. That’s odd to me, since all of the other ghouls out there have a place in the canon: vampires, zombie-like creatures, evil aliens, a multitude of ghosts, witches, mad scientists, a host of psychotic murderers, and other metamorphic beings like our naughty Mr Hyde, but werewolves? No so much. So if anyone knows of any good ones, I’d love to hear from you!
Actually, werewolves scare me, so I will start reading while it’s still light outside. (nervous giggle)