Sunday, September 16, 2012

'I Am Legend': An reviews object lesson

     In a recent post about American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, I quarreled a bit with several of the novels selected, arguing that they weren't even the best work of the 1950s by the author.
     One I quarreled with was The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson, which I suggested wasn't as good as his novel I Am Legend, the basis for the recent Will Smith film. I also took a couple of pot shots at the film, pointing out that it didn't closely follow the book, even to its choice of monsters.
     A friend agreed on Facebook, with a few sharper comments on the filmmakers. But I got to thinking: If I saw the movie and, out of curiosity, picked up the book, I would be in for quite a surprise. So, I decided to check out Amazon reader's reviews and see what they thought.
     I thought if I went to the one-star ratings, I would find what I was looking for, and I was right. Many of these reviews (a minority of the total reviews of the book, which were overwhelmingly positive) hated the book for a couple of reasons: One, the hero wasn't anything like Will Smith; two, the story is dated and boring; and three, the book not only contains the (short) novel, but a bunch of unrelated stories by Matheson.
     Several of these latter readers, apparently not familiar with the concept of the anthology, kept reading and expecting more adventures of Robert Neville despite his imminent death at the end of the novel (I suppose that's a spoiler, but then the character dies in every film version of the novel, so if you didn't know that, you should have) and the lack of a chapter heading.
     Of the first group of one-star raters, some considered the book's Neville a wimp who squandered the extra life he had been given. They were upset that he wasn't a scientist and that he had to self-teach himself science in an attempt to destroy the monsters (who were vampires in the novel, by the way, not something resembling a fast zombie or someone infected with a rage virus), and that he had spells of self-loathing, depression and wasn't, in fact, a HERO.
     Of the second group, I guess it's understandable that a novel written in 1954 isn't exciting to a  contemporary audience, except that I read it in the 1970s, maybe the 1980s, and found it enthralling. I already knew the general plot, having seen the Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth (which you can watch online for free here) in the 1960s. Plus, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker, a far older novel (1897) when I was about 12 years old and, despite a few boring spots, found that riveting, too. On the other hand, in an interview Richard Matheson has said that he thinks the book is dated and that Hollywood should give up on trying to film it. (The same website also has a variety of English and foreign covers from the many editions of the book.)
     I don't like all so-called "classics" (for example, I feel that The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is less engaging and important as a piece of literature than a random episode of HBO's Boardwalk Empire; that The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is a failure as art and entertainment, while the short story upon which it is based -- Williams' own autobiographical tale, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" -- is both; and that Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is only interesting if you view it as the story of how Monsieur Bovary is almost destroyed by his frivolous, stupid and immature wife, who deserves not a jot of our sympathy or interest in of herself), but I like Legend. A lot.
     As for anyone who prefers the Will Smith version to Matheson's original: That's your prerogative, but you're comparing apples and oranges. The two have little in common (the film is closer in plot to the 1971 film The Omega Man, which replaced the vamps with albino mutant cultists; Matheson wasn't sure why they credited his novel in the first place) that it's possible to like both. Why the latest film version was the first to use the title despite the almost total lack of plot detail is puzzling.
     There was another film, I Am Omega, that seems to be based on the book and/or films, though without credit, that was a low-budget film meant to capitalize on the publicity for the Will Smith film. It debuted on DVD, and has been on the SyFy channel.
     To see the book adapted right, look for Steve Nile's graphic novel version. It's had numerous editions, all of which may be out of print, but Amazon lists used copies for sale. You can see the first six pages here.


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