What You Haven't Been Told About I Am Legend

I Am Legend is a good movie, probably in my top ten favorites. It’s both sci-fi and dystopian, sharing elements of films like Children of Men and The Beach. I Am Legend is particularly interesting because it’s based on a 1954 horror fiction novel of the same title.

The Movie

A short summary of the movie: there’s a genetically engineered measles virus that was developed as a cure for cancer. The virus mutates and becomes lethal, killing 90% of the population and leaving the survivors as nocturnal “darkseeker” creatures who are much like zombies. Robert Neville is (he thinks) the last survivor and is working on a cure for the darkseekers to turn them back into humans. He traps a darkseeker and takes her to his lab where he works on a cure that is initially unsuccessful. I’ll let you watch the rest to see what happens from there.

The Book

The novel is different, in some ways darker but more meaningful. There are a number of differences, for example Robert is immune to the virus. The darkseekers are vampire-like creatures rather than zombie-like creatures. Robert kills large volumes of darkseekers whereas in the movie he is mainly defending himself from darkseeker attacks. In the book, in fact, Robert kills many darkseekers in ways that seem like torture, driving stakes through their hearts, exposing them to direct sunlight (which is painful), and inflicting them with deep wounds. He captures a woman named Ruth who seems uninfected and he tests her with garlic to be sure. It turns out that Ruth is infected and had a vengeance because Robert had killed her husband. She was sent to spy on him and the infected are trying to cure themselves but are angry about Robert’s killing rampage, so they have a bounty on him. Eventually he’s captured and asks Ruth to keep the society from becoming heartless. As he awaits his execution and watches the darkseeker civilization from his cell window, he realizes he is the outsider in a new society and that he is the Dracula “legend” figure of their society, preying on and killing innocent victims. At heart he is no different than they are. The darkseekers wanted to eliminate him as a threat to their society, not out of heartlessness.

The movie ends in a way that forgoes a lot of this meaning and complexity. I liked the movie despite this, but I wish it had incorporated more from the book to make it a stronger narrative. It looks like Hollywood scrapped I Am Legend 2, though that’s not official news. Can I also just say they considered Tom Cruise for Robert’s role, and I am so glad they chose Will Smith instead. As I write this I am half-watching Pacific Rim, which has a dystopian premise. It looks intriguing so far and features tall drink of water Idris Elba from The Wire and the 5th season of The Office. It reminds me of The Day After Tomorrow which I also enjoyed.

Have you seen I Am Legend? Do you like dystopian sci-fi?