Book vs. Movie: I Am Legend

Last night I finished reading I Am Legend. I picked it up mostly because I read about the alternate ending of the Will Smith movie, which some criticized for not following the spirit of the book.

I have mixed feelings.

(warning: spoilers for both the book and movie follow)

In the pro-book corner: Conceptually, I’d argue it’s vastly superior to the movie. Robert Neville is an ordinary guy coming to terms with the fact that he may be the last (uninfected) human on the planet. In between bouts of depression and alcoholism, he visits the library and attempts to teach himself about blood disease, infection, and germ mutation, clinging to the weakest threads of hope that he might find a cure.

For three long years he is alone with the vampires, deadly but slow-witted blood-suckers who surround his home by night. As part of his daily routine, he travels from one home to the next, searching bedrooms and closets and chimneys and freezers, destroying the vampires as they sleep.


Eventually, he sees the unthinkable – another human person, a woman, walking around in the daylight. While he’s still suspicious of her, he takes her in and explains his progress towards finding a cure. But soon she’s revealed to be “one of them” sent to spy on him, and this is where the most interesting theme is presented: Who’s the real monster here? He’s been traveling from house to house, slaughtering these “vampires” – people with an ugly but apparently manageable disease – in their sleep. He is the creature society now fears; he has become legend to them in the same way vampires are legend to us. He recognizes this fact and stops fighting, deciding they should be allowed to rebuild the world in their own fashion.

The movie in many ways is over-simplified; the vampires look like monsters and act like monsters, and in the theatrical version, you never have a clue that they’re anything else. The alternate ending shows a slightly more human side, as the pack leader is shown trying to rescue the woman Neville has experimented on; but the moral ambiguity of Neville’s quest to rid the world of vampires is lost. The reference to “legend” is reduced to the heroes-as-legends trope already palatable to audiences, and we’re left with the implication that the survivors will now manufacture a cure.

Where the movie wins is with Will Smith’s performance, which has an emotional resonance entirely lacking in the book. Additionally, Neville’s connection with the dog and his subsequent loss adds a sense of hope followed by a devastating blow the viewer feels keenly (assuming said viewer is not a ROBOT, that ish is poignant as hell). In the book, Neville’s solitude and his dry detachment from even his own memories makes it hard to relate, or even feel much sympathy.

(sidenote: I completely forgot Will Smith’s dog’s name was Sam. My dog’s name is Sam. This movie works on SO MANY LEVELS)

Ultimately it’s hard to say which is better, the book or the movie. I’d argue that they’re different enough in tone and intention that you could enjoy them as two completely independent stories.

Rumor has it there will be an I Am Legend 2 (sequel or prequel, TBD) soon, which I think is a huge mistake. We’ve seen plenty of outbreak movies, and this one would essentially be another take on 28 Days Later. A sequel wouldn’t make much sense either, as Neville’s dead. The movie-verse would probably show echoes of themes seen in The Walking Dead. A sequel to the book’s events wouldn’t leave much to work with either: vampires are building a new society, and without a protagonist grounded in reality, it would devolve into a fantasy.

Presumably the screenwriters know that as well, so maybe they’ll surprise us. As the 6th highest paid actor in Hollywood Will Smith probably doesn’t need to take jobs just for the money, so hopefully any sequel he participates in will be worth watching.

16 thoughts on “Book vs. Movie: I Am Legend”

  1. Without taking sides on which is better because I’ve never read the book, people just need to realise that there’s always going to be differences, even major ones. It seems that adaptations will always upset someone. Anyway, nice review here!

    1. I agree that people get too angry over tiny differences, but sometimes it’s interesting to examine them (if you can avoid being overly emotional about your favorite). I felt like these were two completely different takes on the same basic story

  2. I like Will Smith’s work in the film but comparing to the book in terms of story it’s completely retarded. Also the CGI – one of the worst I’ve seen.

    1. That’s pretty harsh! The CGI was bad, but I thought the movie itself was a good watch. They did an excellent job of building suspense, and it was otherwise respectable as a (somewhat by the numbers) post-apocalyptic movie.

  3. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds quite different from the film. Based on what I remember about the movie, the book sounds darker and more morally ambiguous. I’ve forgotten a lot about the movie, though. The main thing that stands out in my mind is the death of the dog. That was devastating. That and the scene where the helicopter exploded with his family inside. 😦

    1. That’s the thing: the book is morally ambiguous, but the movie is so much more emotionally effective that it FEELS darker. The book was more clinical and detached, so you were able to examine the moral argument with objectivity.

      That’s why it’s almost impossible to say which is “better;” they’re completely different interpretations of a similar idea. I really enjoyed experiencing the thoughtful progression of opinions in the book but ooooh that dog…. it’s like a punch to the GUT. 😦

  4. For all the people saying books and movies are different, that’s not really the point. Of course they are different. This isn’t about the movie leaving out something; it’s about the movie leaving out the entire point of the story, including where the title comes from. The whole realization in the book about the fact that HE is the monster is great. The movie completely eliminates that, which eliminates the reason for the story to exist.

    I haven’t seen them, but I have heard the original movie adaptation I Am Legend is more faithful, while Charleton Heston’s The Omega Man is not.

    1. While I take your point – learning the true meaning behind the title was what drove me to read the book – I think this is an interesting choice of words: “which eliminates the reason for the story to exist.”

      The movie is telling a completely different story in a completely different manner. It’s asking viewers to emotionally connect with a person and experience his regret, hopelessness, and determination under extraordinary and nightmarish circumstances. It’s certainly less thoughtful and original than the book was, but does that mean it’s not a story worth telling?

  5. I think a sequel has the potential to run parallel to the story from the first one, rather than a direct sequel/prequel. That would be my preference anyway. Probably too intelligent for Hollywood these days.

    1. I’m hoping they scrap those plans after World War Z comes out, since they’re so similar in concept. Plus word has it the script for WWZ is incredible, Walking Dead-meets-Children of Men. That one’s also based on an amazing book but leaves room for a lot of interpretation

      1. I don’t think theres ever a point when Hollywood says “no” to growing a franchise atm. Also Will Smith being attached should guarantee production. Then again i see he is attached for Independance Day 2 so……

        As for wwz i heard a lot was left out from the book which could definitely lead to franchise potential without having to resort to creativity.

      2. That’s one I’d actually be open to! Whereas I Am Legend, Jericho, The Walking Dead, etc show a post-apocalyptic world from a single perspective, WWZ offers glimpses into different experiences of the epidemic all over the globe. Definite franchise potential there, I’d love to see that world explored in depth.

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