I will admit dreading this reading.
I tried to watch the movie but ignored the little exposure I had. I’m not even sure how far I got before I told my husband to turn it off and watch it sometime when I’m far, far away. My problem with the movie was twofold, which I will explain.
I never really intended to read the book, but it showed up on a class reading list. When I picked it up and started reading, I first noted that the character of Robert Neville was completely unlike what I’d come to know (briefly) as Robert Neville in the movie, and I’m not just talking about race. Once I realized this, I allowed myself to let go of my preexisting opinions of the story and just… amazingly… enjoyed it.
One of my biggest problems with certain kinds of horror, generally horror involving some sort of science fiction, is the depiction of widescale devastation. The post-apocalyptic stuff on a wide scale really bothers me. I liked the movie Independence Day, but really had trouble with the scenes of devastation in the cities. This was one of my major issues with the movie version of I Am Legend– the complete loss of civilization is something that bothers me a lot. The book, however, brings the wide scale stuff down into the mind of one individual. Yes, we know that life on Earth is no longer what we’re familiar with, but we see it through the eyes of only Neville, instead of the vast omniscient POV so common in post-apocalyptic stories. When seen as the day-to-day struggles of one person, it brings the devastation into a more manageable scale for me, emotionally, yet more effectively drives it home. The bigger picture just forces me to turn off my inner eye– it’s too much. Neville made it easier for me to deal with, and yet made it so much more personal at the same time.
I liked Neville very much. He’s an every man’s kind of man, strong, silent and intelligent. I also liked the monsters that were his neighbors. We all have the irritating neighbor who seems to show up at the least convenient moments. We all have our Ben Cortman. The predictability of Cortman throughout the story was, in a sick way, comforting. We know what he’s going to do if Neville goes outside, but it’s still Ben. The contrast that Matheson achieved with this inverted portrayal of the neighborly exchange tugged at my heart. Of course the story of his family’s demise did too, but it was the smaller details, like his relationship with Cortman, that showed the true loss and made his desperation to have the relationship with Ruth that much more believable.
The appearance of Ruth was too good to be true, and I wouldn’t have bought his efforts to connect with her if Matheson hadn’t so effectively set up Neville’s crippling isolation. All he had was his routine, his drive to remain protected. We see this through his actions to shut out the noise, shutter the windows, play the music. He’s a man on the edge. To me, the isolation in this novel was the true monster. The vampires themselves, perhaps because I’ve been inundated with visuals of this kind of monster for so long, weren’t terrifying to me. The thought of being left alone in that post-apocalyptic society that I already hate… that’s the true terror. And Matheson wrote it exceedingly well.
My other issue, and perhaps my biggest issue, with the movie was the dog. I do not, as a personal rule, watch movies involving animals. I’ve not seen Braveheart because I know there is graphic depiction of horse death. I don’t even like Dr. Dolittle. I was relieved to find that the dog didn’t actually have a recurring role in the book version of I Am Legend, and once we did meet it, it’s purpose was to further demonstrate Neville’s isolation. I was okay with it.
I’m glad that the book exceeded my expectations and glad I’ve read it. The movie was so far from the story I do think they should have given it another name. It’s not the same story at all.