It’s always interesting when reading older works to see just what editors let them get away with back then. In 1954 I am Legend, by Richard Matheson, broke new ground in the genre. It opened the doors for future horror writers to creep through, and creep they did, with many a zombie apocalypse story and film.
I first read I am Legend in the 80’s. I was a child then and easy to please in terms of reading material. The idea of being the last human on earth appealed to me and spawned many such stories of my own. But I wasn’t looking for depth, and I didn’t care much at all for craft and perfect prose. Reading I am Legend today, I found it to be more profound for what it inspired than for what it is.
Technically speaking, there is a great deal wrong with I am Legend. According to everything we have learned as writers of today, this book should not work, and it shouldn’t have a hope in hell of ever being published. The book is full of repeated words and redundant phrases, empty actions and gestures, enough adverbs to make any editor twitch, and lots of passive and distant phrasing.
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. If he had been more analytical, he might have calculated the approximate time of their arrival; but he still used the lifetime habit of judging nightfall by the sky, and on cloudy days that method didn’t work. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days.
I actually rather like the opening above, but as an editor I know I would be adamant that those repeats had to go. This leads me to wonder if maybe all those rules we have shoved down our throats and forced upon our writing by those in publishing, might just be wrong. Yes, the book is dated, yes it was written over 50 years ago, and so the new rules don’t apply, but most people who pick the book up now are doing so because of the film, and many of them are clueless to the book’s history. Still, if you look on Amazon, the reviews are quite favorable (at least the majority are).
In today’s publishing world, unless you are J.K. Rowling, you are not going to get away with the rampant adverb abuse that Matheson pulls off in this book -- over 700 LY adverbs out of 48 K total words for the full novel. Popular theory says that this is weak writing, but I would never consider calling Matheson’s writing weak. It works in a blunt and amateurish way that suits the story and its tone. You feel as though you are reading something raw and unpolished, and that fits well with the very dystopian world he unveils to us.
There is something very plainly stated about the adverb that strips away that false artistic voice of searching the thesaurus for stronger verbs.
He finished it quickly, wishing he had the patience to eat slowly.
I know beyond a doubt the sentence above would be flagged today for revision, but does it really need to be?
He devoured his food, wishing he had the patience to savor it.
I can’t say that the stronger verbs actually make it any stronger, or if they simply make it different, more fitting for what is expected of today’s author. Yet in the case of some redundant phrasing, such as when the author says Neville “ambled slowly” I think even in 1954 this should probably have been red penned, as the only way to amble is “slowly.”
Ambled1. To walk slowly or leisurely; stroll.
Writing style aside, I am Legend has a strong story and a protagonist that one becomes truly invested in, even at times when we utterly hate him. Throughout the book I found myself truly put off by Neville, with his constant drinking and the near ridiculous fixation with ogling the dead ladies shaking their stuff out on his front lawn. Seriously, I know he’s hard up, missing his wife and all, but in all those excursions to Sears for constructions supplies, could he not have stopped off at a Bath and Body Works for some hand lotion to help him chill out a little bit? It was such a persistent focus for him that I was actually a little worried for the poor dog he kidnapped and dragged into his bedroom.
As for the inconsistencies others have mentioned, and the weak science, I chalk that all up to an unreliable narrator. Neville reminds me of some uncles I have who are basically field workers who picked up a couple physics books in their spare time and now have delusions of being nuclear physicists. I’m sure they have some knowledge and understanding, but my eyes glaze over when they start telling me how the world really works…mostly because I’m pretty sure they have misread or misunderstood about 90% of what they’ve read, and if I do more than smile and nod, I just might call them on some of their crap. In Neville’s world, there is no one to call him out on his intellectual mistakes, and no one who knows more about the situation than he does, so as unreliable as he is, he’s our only expert, and we have to just take his word for things. It comes off to me more as character building than world building, because this is just his understanding of what has happened -- it may not be the truth.
On the subject of the dog. There is a general rule of storytelling, especially in movies that says “Never kill the dog.” You can kill as many people as you like, blow up as many buildings, shoot all the hostages, but when you kill the dog you are treading into some very dangerous ground. Many a book has been rejected simply because someone kicked a cat or was cruel to a puppy in their anger. It’s just one of those unredeemable acts. When an author kills the dog, he runs the risk of getting a truly violent reaction from his readers, and may not just lose them for that one book, but for all books that come after. That said, I love how Matheson handled this in his book. There was this huge build up of him promising to help the dog, to take care of the dog, and then very suddenly, “In a week the dog was dead.” This is a slap in the face turn-around, and it hits you hard. But it also happens off screen, so to speak, so those who might have a serious visceral reaction to it have that blow softened a bit.
In the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, the bond with the dog begins early, and yes, for most people, the dog dying has a bigger impact in the film than it does in the book. You might also note, however, that there are tons of people who refuse to even see the movie after hearing what happens to the dog, so it is debatable how much more effective this method was over the book’s take.
Personally, I am all about killing the dog and kicking kittens. That the movie allows us to become so invested in the dog, and then rips our guts out by killing her, just makes me that much more of a fan.
I believe out of all the movie adaptations and rip offs of Matheson’s I am Legend, from The Last Man on Earth, to The Omega Man and Will Smith’s I am Legend, the latter came the closest to being true to the original theme of the book, and it only in an alternate ending.
In the alternate ending, Movie-Neville, like Book-Neville, has a sudden epiphany that he has been the monster all along, that he has become the stuff of legends in the same vein as Dracula. This bit of awareness is seriously lacking in the other films, and to me it is what truly makes the book a wonderful read.