Greatest Literature banner

I Am Legend first editionFirst hardcover edition

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1954

Literature form
Novella

Genres
Science fiction, horror

Writing language
English

Author's country
United States

Length
Approx. 25,000 words

I Am Legend scene 1964
Vincent Price fends off zombies as the "last man on earth" in the 1964 adaptation of I Am Legend.

I Am Legend

THE NOVELLA | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1964, 1971, 2007, 2007

One of the benefits of Richard Matheson packing so many diverse story elements into I Am Legend is that the novella can be interpreted in many different ways on the screen.

An adaptation can focus on the horror elements (and even then can choose where on the zombie/vampire spectrum its apparent monsters reside). Or it can emphasize the science, good and bad. Or the warning of apocalypse due to warfare, disease or ecological collapse. Or the action. Or the family story. Or the study of loneliness....

The three movie versions—four if you count an uncredited knockoff—each select from these themes and develop them differently.

Death and undeath in shades of grey

The Last Man on Earth (1964): Directors Sidney Salkow, Ubaldo B. Ragona; writers Logan Swanson (Richard Matheson), William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo B. Ragona; featuring Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Umberto Raho

The casting of horror star Vincent Price in the first adaptation of I Am Legend might give you an idea of what the particular emphasis of this black-and-white film is going to be.

The revised title, The Last Man on Earth, might give you another idea.

But in fact, the 1964 movie does a decent job of covering all—or at least most of—the bases.

It still stands as the most faithful adaptation of the book. A few details have change. The lead character as been renamed from Robert Neville to Robert Morgan and he is a scientist who was previously working on curing the plague, as opposed to the novella's working-class everyman who teaches himself science in response to the plague. The film has been criticized for this but, really, can you see Vincent Price as an everyman

Not that he's cast well as this film's lead either. Price's patrician demeanor and sonorous tones seem particularly at odds with the man of action who fights through mobs of the undead and searches out the vampires' lairs at night to drive stakes through their hearts. But he is an interesting actor to watch in any role and is particularly good here at depicting Neville, er, Morgan slowly going mad from loneliness and regret.


Trailer for The last Man on Earth, the 1964 movie take on I Am Legend.

Some of the vampires of this movie are closer to what became known as zombies in later films, the lumbering and dim-witted undead. The nightly attack on Morgan's home with creatures obsessively trying to break through his doors and windows is obviously the inspiration for George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which itself is considered a seminal modern zombie flick.

Just as in the book though, the vampires—or at least some of them—turn out to be something other than what our "last man" thinks. This adaptation does a reasonable job in following the twists Matheson devises in the novella. Too bad about the title change though, as that defuses one of the final ironies concerning legendary status.

Matheson actually had a hand in writing the screenplay, though he disguised his name in the credits due to displeasure with the resulting film. It was a joint Italian-American product from a low-budget film production company and was shot with mainly Italian actors poorly dubbed into English for the American market. You can also spot several continuity errors, such as a car travelling in darkness and in daylight and back in darkness in successive shots.

But given an adequate willingness to suspend belief and a modicum of forgiveness for its old-fashioned cinematography, The Last Man on Earth is an engaging take on a book it nearly matches in heart and mind.

— Eric McMillan

THE NOVELLA | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1964, 1971, 2007, 2007

See also:

Movies
Robinson Crusoe

Movies
I, Robot

Movies
Dune

On Amazon:


I Am Legend

On Twitter:

Follow on Twitter