Thursday, January 19, 2012

I am Legend

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.” 

1.      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.  


Serephent said...

Very well written. I love the new artwork!

Christopher Shearer said...

"I'm all for killing dogs and kicking kittens." OK. PETA won't like you.

Anonymous said...

I guess in the future I am going to have pay more attention to the writing style of the books for class. I missed several of the inconsistencies and also the overuse of adverbs you mention.
In the seminar earlier this month, one of the professors mentioned that all those rules hinge on the characteristics of the narrator and his or her point of view. The professor explained one has to be familiar with the rules in order to break them. I think this is part of our creative choice as writers. We are allowed to break the rules on occasion so our writing is more effective. I think there is something to be said about Matheson’s style. Robert Neville is no grammarian or biologist. It would have seemed odd to have him explain the disease using scientific jargon. In addition, most of the narration takes place in his mind. I know that my thoughts always include adverbs and other mistakes I’m not sure anyone thinks in such a proper way. In my opinion, the rough writing and elementary style supported Matheson’s characterization of Neville.
I didn’t know about the guideline about not killing the dog. Writing is always a reflection of reality. Part of life is death. Pets die all the time, which is just another part of the human experience. When Matheson chooses to kill the dog, he makes another conscious effort to push the boundaries with his creativity. The dog scene is essential to the plot since it illustrates Neville’s loneliness. I think it also foreshadows the later scene with Ruth, who Neville is fearful of growing close to. Like the dog, Ruth is also infected and a relationship with her can never be. The reason the relationship is doomed to fail is because they are on opposite sides of the conflict. This is unlike the failed relation attempt with the dog which is the animal’s death. If the scene wasn’t so pivotal to the plot and character development, I don’t think Matheson would have got away with it. I could be wrong, though.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading your blog. It inspired me to think about the story in a different way and I thank your for that.

Rhonda JJ said...

Glad to see there's someone else who likes to see all the things that have come out in print that would be highly questioned now. I do that too, because I'm fascinated by how cyclical publishing is (just as many things are). What doesn't work today was all the rage years ago, and what was considered sparse years ago is what writers are encouraged to do now. The one thing that remains constant is the idea that a good story can overcome all the trends in the mechanics. Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer Loring said...

If you haven't read Hell House yet, he takes adverb abuse to entirely new levels in that one.

Kathleen Calhoun said...

Good stuff ^.^ I need to read this book if only because it is the Grandady of the modern zombie story.

Scott A. Johnson said...

I hate to admit it, but I'd never seen the alternate ending. I actually liked it a great deal more than the theatrical release. Thanks for posting that.

Paul Naughton said...

I have to say you pay much closer attention to the style than I did with your analysis. I'm not really sure it's that significant a deal though. Inconsistencies are a constant every day part of life and really successful writers have books so full of them it begs belief.