Why Isn’t I Am Legend More Famous?

April 24, 2013

Seriously, why isn’t I Am Legend more famous? I don’t mean the movie starring Will Smith, naturally, but rather the original novel my Richard Matheson.

It’s certainly a well respected book among some science fiction and horror fans; it often tops lists of the greatest zombie stories. Yet I remember that many of the serious readers who hung around the MIT Science Fiction Society library when I was in college had never even heard of it. And it has been adapted for film three time, although essentially as conventional vampire/zombie apocalypse flicks. The post-apocalyptic world of the undead was something of a novel idea when Matheson published the book in 1954, but (in part thanks to inspiration from I Am Legend itself), it’s pretty well-known trope now. None of the movie versions actually used the elements that make the novel so remarkable, although the producers of the Will Smith version originally intended to keep Matheson’s ending, which explains why it’s called “I Am Legend.”

In fact, despite the past few years’ cultural obsession with zombies, I haven’t encountered anyone except hard-core science fiction fans who are familiar with Matheson’s work. The recent interest in zombie apocalypse stories even produced a literary mash-up of the zombie genre with Pride and Prejudice. I couldn’t stomach more than a couple chapters of that. Making my way through the zombie-fighting passages, I was just waiting and hoping for it to get back to Austen’s real prose. I suppose there has to be something said for having the nerve to combine momentarily trendy elements of classic literature and current mass entertainment topics—and getting people to take it seriously as… something. I suppose the equivalent in the 1970s would have been rewriting the Ramayana so that the ten-headed demon king Ravana was trying to take over a major international airport. In the 1960s, Thoreau would have been going to Walden to infiltrate an international spy ring.

Matheson’s novel actually has a rather refined literary form. The story follows Robert Neville’s frame of consciousness. He starts out ignorant but brutally effective in keeping alive. Yet he asks questions—about how a vampire who was Jewish or Muslim in life would respond to a cross, or why the vampires think they can fly. After years alone as seemingly the last human on the planet, he develops into a masterly hunter, and scientist capable of answering his earlier querries, and something else. He’s also has an iconically American character—not so much so as Huckleberry Finn or Jay Gatsby, but still a remarkable embodiment of the national character.

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9 Responses to “Why Isn’t I Am Legend More Famous?”


  1. A somewhat strange post, in my opinion…

    1) Obviously, everyone knows you don’t mean the movie with Will Smith. First, no one saw it and few remember it, and second, ‘movies with Will Smith’ is no one’s go-to-place when thinking of material to be taken seriously.

    2) No one takes ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ “seriously,” either. …Quite the opposite, and that’s kind of its point. Its only point–good for some cynic for realizing this dash of cleverness could be rather quickly interpolated into an existing text and churn out probably six figures or even more for him/her after only an hour’s work. …But…why would you suggest it was taken…seriously?

    3) Your examples of by-the-decade mixtures of current mass entertainment and literature are…a little strange…the cultural mish-mashes just don’t feel quite right to me…though around 2001 my then-room-mate did rewrite a section of the Ramayana to replace the talking monkey godlings with *actual* monkeys in a thing that worked pretty well–and included a bit with a monkey being fired out of a catapult with a magic ring taped to the back of his head.

    4) Your case for the exceptionality of the book itself doesn’t include enough content for me to see why I should value the piece… At the end, you *tell* us he’s an exceptional American character, but you don’t really show us anything about that aspect of the book, or even suggest in what direction he’s exceptional (i.e. to avoid spoilers and such) after that lead. Not being familiar with the story myself…this post leaves me almost as unfamiliar with it as I started.

    • Buzz Says:

      I think Neville embodies a number of key features of the idealized middle-class American factory worker from the middle of the twentieth century. He’s not particular well educated, but he values learning and is an extremely innovative worker. He takes seriously the value that America had as a melting pot. Moreover, a lot of what he does is shaped by his intense loyalties—first to his nuclear family and secondarily to his neighborhood. The neighborhood loyalty has some oddly conflicting consequences. Farther from his home, he runs a one-man neighborhood watch, fighting the undead during the day. Closer to home, he still manages to maintain a sort of relationship with the old friend who once lived next door.


  2. Love this book. And you’re right, I have no idea why it isn’t better known. George A. Romero even sites I Am Legend as his main influence for Night of the Living Dead.
    Just curious… There is an alternate ending to the Will Smith movie. Have you ever seen it?

    • Buzz Says:

      I had also heard that Romero has credited Matheson’s book as a primary inspiration for the Living Dead movies. It seems to me that Romero’s work was quite a bit more influential than any of the direct screen adaptations of I Am Legend. Night of the Living Dead seems to have crystallized most of the features that are now parts of the zombie invasion plot. (The major exception would be zombies eating brains specifically, which, as far as I know, originated in a Simpsons Halloween special.)

      I have also heard that there is an alternate ending to Will Smith’s movie, which is much closer to Matheson’s original plot. I haven’t seen it, however. After too many hours of watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire in college, I find it rather difficult to accept Smith in more dramatic roles. Seeing Smith in a science fiction context also reminds me of Independence Day; I didn’t like that movie very much, and I thought Smith’s character was possibly the worst element. (Others opinions obviously differ; I have a old friend who insists that Smith was the only good thing in that movie.)


      • Maybe you were joking, but by the 80s brain eating was a staple of much, if not most, zombie material. ‘Return of the Living Dead’ is a garden variety example which focuses more than usual on it.

        I could be getting the name wrong. It’s not as if anyone remembers it or cares, least of all me.

        • Buzz Says:

          I was indeed joking (although given the fame of that particular “Treehouse of Horror” episode, I suspect it did a lot to spread the notion). I had never actually heard of Return of the Living Dead (so far as I can remember), but sources online seem basically unanimous that that is where the idea of zombies eating brains actually entered the popular culture.


          • Interesting! I had no idea that movie was that important to ‘Zombie’ popular culture. There was enthusiasm during the viewing for the relative speed those zombies moved at, I remember–made it a lot more interesting a fight than undead who strictly shambled. Everyone also liked a particular zombie with a strange, swaying gate whose head got taken off by a bat. Um, anyway.

  3. Diapadion Says:

    I saw the film version (1964), but I haven’t read the original novel.

    I’m mostly in agreement with you here. I’ve personally been influenced by Matheson’s depiction of the zombies; I don’t think anyone else has done anything nearly as interesting and derivative works. On the other hand, Matheson zombies aren’t really zombies, at least not the way we know them.

    The Americanism of the hero is an interesting thought. I didn’t really get any of that from the film; casting Vincent Price certainly didn’t help, and if I recall correctly, the main character is one of the scientists not some middle-class factory worker. I can see what you’re saying about the neighborhood and family in retrospect, so this weakness is probably the fault of the film not the book.

    • Buzz Says:

      If you haven’t read the book, you really should. It’s not that long, and none of the film adaptations are especially close to it.


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