I am intrigued to see that a third film version of Richard Matheson’s deeply disturbing vampire novel, “I am Legend” is currently in production. Will Smith plays Robert Neville, the last man alive, as the rest of the human race have succumbed to a disease that turns them into vampires.
Sometimes popular fiction transcends its own limitations and strikes a deep cultural resonance. The 1954 novel is remarkably contemporary, both in exploring the themes of solitude and memory so characteristic of the post-modern American novelist, Paul Auster, but also in the brutality of its post-apocalyptic vision, as dealt with recently by Cormac McCarthy in “the Road”.
It would be wrong to say that “I am Legend” provides a simple metaphor for anything, but certainly the paranoia and hopelessness it so starkly lays bare is informed by the cold war, and the 1950s concerns about nuclear Armageddon and the enemy within of Communist subversion. These themes run again in a world preoccupied with the fear of Islamist terrorism, and the Clash of Civilisations.
Matheson took the very interesting approach of providing a medical rationalisation for vampirism. This gives an added frisson to the story in a world coping with an AIDS pandemic. Indeed some of the details of the novel, such as the fact that some vampires carry the virus but have not developed the full disease might seem a crass parody of HIV/AIDS had they not been written 30 years before the disease appeared.
The casting of Will Smith will prove either disastrous or inspired, depending on whether or not he is allowed to develop into the disturbed and obsessed monster that Neville becomes in the book. If he can play against his own natural character and subvert the sympathy that the audience normally has for him, then he may be uniquely qualified to carry off the dark and philosophical twist that the book ends with. We need to continue to identify with Neville’s character beyond the boundaries of our own civilised morality, and share his experiences as he descends into animal barbarity that we don’t want to know we are capable of.
The two previous film versions of the book (“The last man on earth”, 1964, and “The Omega man” 1971) have shied away from the philosophical and very subversive ending. Normality has been subverted: the Vampires are the new human society, and Neville is the monster. If the new movie accepts this subversion then it could be a great picture.
The presence of Will Smith means that “I am Legend” will not be a routine slasher movie: he is too “A-list” for that. But the very mainstream nature of the film may prevent it sharing the subversive ending of the book. The omens are not good, as it is produced by Akiva Goldsman, who was behind the appalling “Beautiful Mind”, and is directed by Francis Lawrence, who relied far too much on special effects for “Constantine” (2005).
But whether or not the movie lives up to its promise, I would certainly recommend reading the book.