If you really want to see an example of Hollywood completely trashing an excellent book, read I am Legend by Richard Matheson. This small, 125 page book is probably one of the most frightening books I have ever read. Written in 1954, I am Legend, helped give birth to the zombie genre by introducing readers to the idea of a worldwide disease that, instead of killing, alters the populace into something grisly and leaves them in to a supposed fate worse than death.
The premise is well known; last man on Earth defends his homestead and person from hordes of vampiric creatures. The hero of the story is Robert Neville, whose character is a far cry from the strong, smart, determined scientist played by Will Smith in the 2007 movie. Neville is immune to the disease, however he is cowardly, depressed, and a drunk. During the day, as the hordes sleep and hide from the sun, Neville repairs his defenses, searches for supplies, and might kill a vamp or two. But at night, he hides in his bathtub, drinks whiskey, and contemplates ending his stand and opening the door to his besiegers.
So what makes this so scary? Well, unlike the movies, which did a total injustice to the book, as well as cut short the fear factor, the vampires are sentient. That’s right, they know him. They sit outside of his house and call to him by name. The female vamps tease him by exposing their bodies and offering him sex if he comes outside. His carpool buddy, Ben Cortman, talks to him and insults his cowardice. They tell him over and over that it is a matter of time before his death. Eek! is an understatement here.
Finally, Neville decides to do some research and figures out the nature of the disease and why he is immune. As he is figuring all this out, he finds and captures an uninfected woman named Ruth. And although Neville is suspicious of her nonviolent attitude toward the infected, they grow close and “do the deed.”
As Neville’s research continues, he convinces Ruth to allow him to draw blood from her and realizes that she (GASP!!!) is actually infected. Ruth knocks him out and vanishes, leaving behind a note that warns him that society has continued through the epidemic and a new world order is emerging. Although still sensitive to sunlight and needing blood to survive, civilization is reforming and see him as a threat that she was sent to investigate. Neville is warned to run and hide as the new authority are coming for him.
Of course, he stays put and is captured. Neville is taken to a prison. He learns that the new society is scared of him. He is the new, ultimate predator, the last living remnant of the old world able to function in the sun. After being told he is to be publicly executed, Ruth visits him and reveals that she is actually an important member of the new society. She tells him she was going to help him escape, but it is too late for that. She gives him a pill that would “make it easier.” Neville goes to his prison window and sees the crowd gathering for his execution. He sees the fear in their eyes and accepts his fate, laughing at the irony that he is actually the monster under the bed.
“Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in his pain. … Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.” -Chapter 21
Neville takes the pills. The legend dies. How frightening. This book takes the hero beyond worst case scenario. There is no happy ending. No puppies and rainbows. No happy, fuzzy feelings. Just “what if” thoughts that echo in the reader’s mind when the sun goes down.