This blockbuster was actually based on a short 50’s sci fi novel by cult writer Richard Matheson, which has been adapted to film three times now, though upon comparison you may never have known.
A great, quick little novel that puts a unique spin on the age old vampire story. In Richard Matheson’s world, vampires are the product of a virus that’s been around for centuries, spawning all the myths and fables. The virus experiences a surge in its spread, aided by the fall out from a nuclear war, and seizes the entire population, save for Robert Neville, a lowly office drone who becomes the “last man on earth.” Every day he searches for supplies and survivors, every night he sits in his house, listening to the vampires calling out to him, beckoning him to come out. Neville begins to study the virus, taking blood samples from test subjects during the day when the vampires are comatose, and seeks a cure. The inner dialogue is key in this novel and Matheson writes Neville with a great familiarity. His burning sexual desire is that of a man who hasn’t touched a woman in 3 years and his curious will to live, despite the deterioration of the world around him, is uplifting as the reader roots for him to make it home before sunset each night. The novel captures human nature in such an interesting setting, as Neville teaches himself how to be a scientist and learns everything he can about the virus infesting the Earth’s population, because he believes he is the only one out there who can. I found Neville so relatable and interesting, as he tests and debunks old vampire myths (the garlic works, the mirrors do not, and the crosses only work on those who were Christian when they were alive…a Jewish vampire cowers from the Torah!) and rids the surrounding area of vampires once he finds out he doesn’t need stakes to kill them and can simply drag their bodies into the daylight. Eventually he comes upon a dog without the virus which gives him hope that there may be others out there. His plight comes to an end in the form of a woman named Ruth, whom he finds walking in the sun during daylight hours. At the end of the book, he is a legend that will go down in history, though in a completely different way then how it is portrayed in the film.
It is ironic that this is the third incarnation of this book on film, yet the first one to use the book’s title, since the title is nearly the only thing the book and film have in common. There is the main character still, Robert Neville, who seeks a cure to the virus that has spawned what he calls “The Dark Seekers.” Neville spends his days driving around the deserted Big Apple with his German Shepard Sam, conversing with mannequins that he has set up all over town (presumably to keep his sanity somewhat intact, though he looks a bit crazy eyeing up the mannequin in the video store every day and never getting up the courage to speak to her), and experimenting on test subjects to no avail. He also waits by the Brooklyn Bridge every day at noon to see if anyone will answer his distress broadcast. By night, he sits in his bathtub with his gun and Sam, hoping that the “dark seekers” will never discover where he lives. When one day he falls into a trap, he spirals into an angry rampage against the dark seekers that leads him to meet Anna and Ethan, a mother and son who have been beckoned to New York by his broadcast. During the last half of the film, the quiet, solitary life we have seen Neville lead turns into an action-packed crusade to find a cure and avoid the “dark seekers.”
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One of my favorite parts of the book, the character Ben Cortman, a once dull neighbor who has turned into a rather clever vampire whom Neville often finds amusing, is completely gone from the film, replaced by a nameless “dark seeker” leader. Another great part of the book, where Neville figures out what vampire myths work and don’t work by trial and error is gone since the movie never refers to the infected as vampires. Finally, in the book there are two different kinds of infected people- those who were alive when they were infected and turned into vampires, and those who died, and then were reanimated by the virus. This difference becomes very significant in the book, but simply doesn’t exist in the film.
The movie takes place in New York, the book in Los Angeles. The virus was spread by nuclear aftermath in the book, and by a cure for cancer in the movie (explained by Emma Thompson, in a really random cameo). Neville is conveniently a scientist in the film, whereas in the book he has to teach himself science and biology in order to start seeking a cure. Sam the German Shephard was Neville’s dog before the virus hit in the film, and in the book he simply comes upon an unaffected dog one day. Neville’s past and family differ greatly from the book to the film. There is no mention of vampires in the film, and the “dark seekers” don’t go comatose during the day, they simply hide in dark places and are just as deadly. There are a thousand other differences, but most notably the second half, at the point where Neville meets the woman (in the film’s case it’s Anna and her son Ethan, in the book’s case it’s Ruth), things change drastically. The biggest difference, perhaps, is the reason why Neville “is legend,” as the title suggests. This change affects how each version ends; the book being a far more eerie and poetic ending, while the film opts to take the Hollywood route.
If I hadn’t read the book at all, then I may have enjoyed the film a little more. Will Smith has certainly proven himself as the type of actor who can hold his own for an hour of just him and a dog. And while the end turns a bit towards mindless, jump-out-at-you, action, the first hour or so of the film is pretty engaging. However, having read the book first, I was annoyed by how little justice the film did to it. Why bother taking the title if you’re going to take just one element of the plot, one surviving man against a virus who seeks a cure, and change everything else? I’d love to see a film that honored this book, as it is a truly wonderful story, but this is not that film.