I may do another Book Vs. Movie with Matheson's classic going up against Charleton Heston in The Omega Man, but for now I'm going with the most recent adaptation with Will Smith in the lead role.
Richard Matheson has does it all in the writing world--western, sci-fi, horror--and the guy garners acclaim no matter what the genre. And one of his most iconic stories is I Am Legend, about the last man standing in a city, in a world really, that has fallen to a menace of mankind's making.
This is one of my favorite novels, though I think it may technically be a novella because it's less than 200 pages. So when Will Smith assumed the role and I had a chance to finally sit down and watch the movie, I was like many in that I had some skepticism held towards how good it would be. I'd heard Smith and others involved with the film say that it stayed truer to the book than The Omega Man, but that still left a lot of breathing room.
The protagonist is essentially the same, with Neville (played by Will Smith) living in a devastated and isolated New York City as he seeks to cure the disease that turned so many people into monsters. In the film, the monsters are revealed fairly early to be humans turned rabid and nocturnal. They exist primarily as instinctual creatures that feed on any human unfortunate enough to cross their path. Oh, and dogs are infected too. In the book, the monsters are of a different variety. They're violent and also bloodthirsty, but there's an intelligence about them, as one in particular taunts Neville each night to come out of his house-turned-fortress.
In the book, Neville is fairly composed, though there is the sadness for everything he's lost and that fear he may ultimately fail. In the movie, the writers went one step further--or Smith did in ad-libbing--by making Neville a tad crazier thanks to the isolation, as he carries on conversations with mannequins he's set up in his neighborhood, even hitting on one at the behest of his German shepherd. Yup, you read that right.
The climax of the movie starts off similar to the book, as a couple of characters are introduced and protected by Neville. But when the shit hits the fan, the movie takes a much different path from the book. I could easily dismiss the movie for this use of creative license, but I thought the movie's ending worked as well as the one in the book. And when you consider the rest of creative license used throughout the movie, they basically had no choice but to come up with a different ending.
Winner: The Book. If you've seen the movie, read the book if for no other reason than to get a totally different experience. If you've read the book, but haven't seen the movie, I'd say you should still give it a chance. Just keep in mind that it's not exactly as Matheson originally envisioned it. I really do like the movie, but Will Smith's performance was just too quirky and distracting to make me care about him. With the book at least, I was rooting for Neville the whole way through.