With this weekend’s premiere of I Am Legend, I can now compare all three versions of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 vampire/science-fiction novel.
Most viewers aren’t aware that there are two other screen adaptations of this story, neither of which is called I Am Legend. The first, The Last Man on Earth, is an independently financed 1964 movie shot in Italy (although ostensibly taking place in Los Angeles) and starring Vincent Price as the vampire slayer. The second movie, The Omega Man, is a major studio picture from 1971 starring Charleton Heston and directed by Boris Sagal.
Here’s a quick-n-dirty breakdown of the three versions.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
What’s good about it: Stark quality, dry and lonely atmosphere. Fine performance from Vincent Price. Stays closest to book of any version, including the “anti-horror” ending.
What’s bad about it: Very low-budget and shoddy quality. Dubbing of the Italian actors is awful. Matheson wanted his name taken off the screenplay credit—not a good sign.
The Omega Man (1971)
What’s good about it: ‘A’ movie production values. Plenty of ‘70s kitsch entertainment.
What’s bad about it: Too much ‘70s kitsch entertainment. Silly performance from Charleton Heston. Most of the apocalyptic atmosphere is lost. The hood-wearing albinos are a lame replacement for Matheson’s vampires.
I Am Legend (2007)
What’s good about it: Top-notch, epic production values. Great sense of an empty world with immense attention to details. Superb performance from Will Smith.
What’s bad about it: Inexplicably adopts the weak ending from Omega Man. Flashback sequences are ordinary. The “vampires” are not-very-scary CGI. Akiva Goldsman’s influence evident in a few dumb speeches.
As a snap judgment, I’ll pick I Am Legend as the best of the three. (Update: Changed my mind about this in a hurry.) It certainly nails the apocalypse tone right, and it is surprisingly subdued and character-based for a big-budget holiday release. The tremendous footage of New York turning into an urban prairie are superlative examples of visual effects used in service to a story. The detail put into the design is also convincing and makes many scenes compulsively watchable, even when nothing dramatic is happening. Will Smith also delivers a nuanced performance, and this makes up for me having to sit through the maudlin Pursuit of Happyness. Will, steer clear of the feel-good stuff, okay? This is what you need to do.
But... after three film versions, why haven’t we had a genuine adaptation of I Am Legend? Bizarrely, the cheap Last Man on Earth comes the closest to the book, and it is the only one that attempts to retain the weird and wonderful finale that so bowled me over when I first read the book. (Although no one will listen to me, I urge everyone to read the book before seeing any of the film versions.) Both Omega Man and I Am Legend jettison the last third of Matheson’s plot, and come up with a more “comfortable” self-sacrifice conclusion. This happier ending negates the meaning of the title, so the new movie has to come up with another way to justify “I Am Legend”… and it’s really annoying.
Although it keeps a semblance of Matheson’s conclusion, The Last Man on Earth doesn’t stack up to the original in many ways. Mostly, the low budget deflates the ‘end times’ feeling, and Price’s excellent work has to flail against the terrible dubbing of the Italian actors. As for The Omega Man… well, it’s a camp classic. That’s all that needs be said of it. Oh, and the groovy albinos and the blaxploitation clichés. What were they thinking?
In final analysis, read the book.
UPDATE: I changed my mind.