"It's genuine 160-proof old Anglo-Saxon, baby."
"I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson was an important book for me.
I first read it when I was in my early teens and still in thrall - almost exclusively - to genre fiction. Back then I read a lot of horror - Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean R Koontz, Richard Laymon, Robert R McCammon, James Herbert...I also read bits and pieces of sci-fi and fantasy and some crime and thriller stuff like Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. I hadn't really gotten to literary fiction yet. That was reserved for school. My Dad would borrow me books he thought I might like from the library, which he visited once or twice a week.
One day he came home with "I Am Legend". Great title, I immediately thought. Modern take on the vampire myth, the blurb said. It had a scary cover. It sounded great. Within a few pages, I realised that it was different from most of the books I'd read before. The writing felt different. It had a tone and atmosphere like nothing I'd known. And it felt as if the story was trying to say something without saying it outright. It was ambitious and serious about its material in a way nothing I'd encountered before had really been (Stephen King undoubtedly takes his work seriously but his main aim in the majority of his work - rightly so - is narrative drive. Not so Matheson in "I Am Legend"). The ending was unapologetically, almost gleefully bleak.
I loved it.
When I think about it now, it seems like a little turning point. It opened me up to a kind of book I wouldn't previously have even considered, it prepared me for more challenging material, in a way. To this day, some of my favourite fiction exists in the strange area where genre meets literature. Matheson had a lot to do with that.
I don't want to review the new adaptation of "I Am Legend" directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. Almost a decade ago I read Mark Protosevich's screenplay adaptation online. It fudges the novel's ending horribly - Neville survives! - but that screenplay did as good a job as could be expected of turning Matheson's book - written in 1954 - into a contemporary action/horror film which would work for a modern audience. Back then, Ridley Scott was going to direct the film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead. Sylvain Despretz had even done a lot of excellent design and storyboarding. But it never happened. The budget was collossal, Arnie's star was slowly falling, Scott hadn't had a hit in years, and it all fell through. Periodically new names were briefly attached. Matheson's concept is too beautiful in its archetypal simplicity and purity for Hollywood to stay away for long. After all, the novel had already been adapted twice, as "The Last Man On Earth" in 1964 and "Omega Man" in 1971, and has been incredibly influential in the entire post-apocalyptic strain of zombie horror, from "Night of the Living Dead" through "28 Days Later".
A film of that Protosevich script would seriously rock. But this "I Am Legend" is not just Protosevich's. Writer-Producer Akiva Goldsman (whose credits include, ahem: "Batman & Robin", "A Time to Kill", "a Beautiful Mind" and "The Da Vinci Code", horrible films all) has a co-credit for the screenplay, so we know exactly where to lay the blame for much of what is wrong with the film. Because for much of the first hour, "I Am Legend" is pretty good. Bleak enough, well-made, dependably carried by Smith, and with one particularly intense scary set-piece. Its also a great Dog movie, never a bad thing. It departs from the novel and Protosevich's version in a few fundamentals - Neville is no longer continually besieged, there is no hierarchy or society among the "Dark-Seekers", and Neville is determined to "cure" the creatures - but it leaves in some of Protosevich's better scenes, albeit in slightly different contexts and settings. An abandoned, devastated New York is a great setting, superbly realised. But then everything goes wrong. It stops being a Dog movie, never a good thing. Other characters show up. Will Smith quotes "Shrek". The CGI, previously poor but little-seen, becomes worse and even more prominent. The ending completely misses the point of the title and Matheson's work. Thanks for that, Akiva.
Nonetheless, the film has been a massive worldwide hit, which is some sort of testament to Will Smith's star power and the quality of Matheson's premise. Matheson gave great premise. Spielberg's "Duel" was adapted by Matheson from his own short story. The classic Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" was written by Matheson. He adapted "Kolchak: the Night Stalker" from the novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, then wrote the second TV movie, creating the formula the entire series (and the later "The X-Files") was based upon. All of these stories have strong, simple story ideas as their foundation, the kind of stories that can be summarised in one sentence. A driver is stalked across the desert by a mysterious truck. A man, recently the victim of a nervous breakdown, is convinced he sees a goblin destroying the wing of the plane he is travelling on. An investigator hunts a Serial Killer with seemingly supernatural powers. But perhaps his greatest premise, "I Am Legend" apart, and ripe for a modern remake, is the one from his novel "The Shrinking Man", made into a great little film by Jack Arnold in 1957.
"The Incredible Shrinking Man" was adapted by Matheson, who stayed true to the beauty of his central notion in a way another screenwriter may not have managed. His hero, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is affected by a combination of a radioactive cloud and pesticide (very Marvel Comics) and begins to shrink. The film follows his struggles with this condition, his changing relationships with his wife and daughter and society at large. Its final act is unforgettable, thrilling, and finally moving. Carey has gotten so tiny that he lives in his Daughter's Dollhouse. The family cat stalks him around the house and eventually attacks him, and he barely survives the assault. His wife assumes him dead, and, still shrinking, he is reduced to hiding in the house's basement, now an enormous "primeval plain". He needs food, not so easy to come by for a man only a couple of centimetres tall. The film climaxes with Carey's desperate struggle with the cellar's other occupant, a spider, which has become a horrific, terrifyingly giant foe as it too hunts him. The special effects are comparatively excellent, and the final battle between man and beast is brilliantly staged and shot.
Matheson's pacing is exemplary, and the voiceover does a credible job of illuminating Carey's condition and mental state before disappearing for the pure visual thrills of the action sequences. However it was Producer/Director Arnold who added the excellent closing solliloquay, which captures the flavour of the books conclusion and almost improves upon it, as Carey faces his future at a sub-atomic level with hope and a sort of curious excitement:
"I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!"
The closest Hollywood has gotten to remaking "The Incredible Shrinking Man" has been in the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" series. But a serious remake, handled right by a major director, with the right star as Carey (Edward Norton, say) could be an absolutely fantastic film. It will never happen that way, of course. If it was remade, the action would be amped up, the internal monologue and despair toned down, the Spider would be an overdone, overly-overt piece of CGI, and Matheson's tone and aims would be lost entirely. There was even a rumour a few years ago that "The Incredible Shrinking Man" was set to be Eddie Murphy's next kid-friendly vehicle. Though it seems to have fallen apart, the horror of this idea is too great to contemplate, and certainly far worse than anything Matheson himself ever came up with...