Friday, January 23, 2015

My Take: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill in pursuit of an MFA in writing Popular Fiction. I am enrolled in a course that focuses on monsters, and as a part of that course I am to write a blog post on each book/story/movie that we cover. So this will be the first installment of a series of such posts.
Since there are a bevy of reviews out there that you can find that will give you a “1-5 star” type review I’m going to attempt to go a different route. I’m going to break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

Strength of Character: C
"This film is not a faithful adaptation of the book."
Robert Neville is an intriguing man with some real flaws. He has many hang ups about women, he’s temperamental, prone to alcoholism, and mercurial. I recognized his struggle from the first chapter and found myself both pitying the man and imagining myself in his shoes. He’s lost his wife and daughter, and is so lonely that it is threatening to drive him mad. But he is thrifty and resilient, and wins us over with his desire to understand the virus. Neville is rounded and fairly interesting, but the only other character, Ruth, falls a bit short. She seems like a sketch of a person, an idealized woman representative of the sort of tenderness that Robert sorely misses. She operates in the book mostly as a symbol, and less as a character.
Genre Strength (Fright Factor): D+
Since this is a book of horror I feel obliged to rate it as such. The vampires described are not particularly frightening. They don’t make especially capable adversaries as they are easily knocked around by Neville with a punch or a kick. The horror of the vampire comes from the pandemic of their existence, the wiping out of the human race, the gross perversion of humanity that is Ben Cortman, Neville’s neighbor-turned-vampire-turned-antagonist. The world is dark and post-apocalyptic, but not particularly memorable.
Thematic Poignancy: B+
This is where I Am Legend shines. The plot unfolds in a way to highlight the themes that I believe Matheson was attempting to explore. He seeks to blur the lines between man and monster. Neville is the way he is so that we can see the animalistic side of him, the violent side, the depraved side. Matheson first highlights these characteristics to show Neville as far from heroic. Then he humanizes the vampire with Ruth, showing her to be capable of compassion, of love. At last he turns turns the mythos of the vampire on its head, when Neville realizes with terror that he has become the outsider, the Dracula-like monster, the other. “I Am Legend.”
Entertainment Value: C+
Entertainment Value is a fickle thing to try and pin down, but I will share my personal experience with it. I found the book dark and poignant, the character a little bland, and the plot at times sluggish though intriguing. Some of the best moments were when Neville discovered his watch was dead and that he’d no idea how long he’d been out, the whole of the interaction with the dog including its brutal final moments, and the moment where Ruth makes her move, striking him with the Mallet. These moments were interspersed with some long passages of navel-gazing and hand-wringing that I didn’t find particularly interesting.
Random Notes and Final Grade: C+

* Matheson hooks us nicely with this opening: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.” I wanted to know more, to get answers.
* Some people may want to condemn Richard Matheson for his character’s views on women, and to that I say, pump thine brakes. Too often readers fall into the trap of seeing characters as the author thinly veiled, which may sometimes be true, but often is a mistake. Neville’s strange views on women serve the story by amping up the tension when he first meets Ruth. What is this crazy guy who’s been thinking about having sex with vampires going to do when he gets this woman all alone? We only are worried about this because we’ve seen how conflicted Neville is, how adolescent his desires seem. This isn’t to say that I know anything about Matheson’s real life views on women, he may be a huge misogynist for all I know, I’m just not going to base my judgment of the author on the prejudices of a character in his book.
* For some reason Richard Matheson was obsessed with telling us every time a character’s throat moved, which was a lot. “Too many times,” I say, my throat constricting and un-constricting as I finish this review.


  1. Regarding women and Neville's treatment: I always thought this was foreshadowing the twist/reveal at the end in a different way than what was building up through his daytime activities. He's becoming the predator in a "normal" world. Even if you disregard that idea, we're talking about a human being who is reduced to the life of a primitive, functioning on his natural drives. He went from normal Joe to a guy who spends daylight hours killing vampires and scavenging for supplies. The madness of his life must bleed into his sense of right-wrong.

    1. I like that take, Jay. I definitely see it as a part of the storytelling used for a particular purpose, which I think supports the idea that it was done intentionally to elicit a desired effect rather than some sort of accidental confessional misogyny on the part of Matheson. Neville's humanity was crumbling away, so I thought it appropriate that he struggles so mightily with his sexual urges.

    2. Yes to this. Yes to all of this. I am so glad that someone else noticed how flat Ruth is as a character. She doesn't act, or sound female. She is only in the story as a common trope in horror of what women are. Matheson uses this trope a lot. In Hell House it's the exact same story. In Matheson's books woman = bad. Which as a woman pisses me off in a spectacular fashion.

      I also noticed that he had a fixation on the throat. It weirded me out as well. It seemed vacuous and unnecessary. :P

  2. Great analysis, Luke. Although, I seemed to have cut the book a little more slack than you did. My biggest problems were that I would sometimes get confused with what was actually happening. "Are we in a flashback or is my book missing pages." That slowed me down a bit, but at no point did I feel like the story was sluggish. I finished it in two sittings, but would have read it in one if I didn't have to go to work the next day.

    I found the character of Neville real and refreshing (in an i've-seen-this-before) kind of way. When he whined, I didn't want to punch him. I felt for him when he was upset, and i was interested in him when he was unstable. I love me an unstable protagonist (a well done unstable protag). People usually dial up the crazy wayyy too much. I thought that Neville had just the right amount of crazy. I'd give the whole work a B/B+

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