Richard Matheson, Master Of The Incredible
Richard Matheson, SF and fantasy writer, has died aged 87. InÂ a career spanning more than 60 years, he wrote stories that smoothly translated from the page to both big and small screens. Several of his works were adapted into films, including 1953â€²s ‘Hell House’, 1956â€²s ‘The Shrinking Man’, 1958â€²s ‘A Stir of Echoes’Â and 1978â€²s ‘What Dreams May Come’. He had that indefinable quality, readability, which so many authors never manage to achieve.
His horror novelÂ ‘I Am Legend’Â was a landmark work in the genre, ushering in zombies and apocalyptic themes to post-second world war America.Â The novel was adapted three times as a film, most recently in 2007 as a big-budget thriller of the same name starring Will Smith, but earlier in 1964 as the low budget ‘The Last Man on Earth’ and most successfully in 1971 as ‘The Omega Man’.
I’m fascinated by the transition from page to screen. To me one of the most depressing examples of dumbing down in Hollywood cinema in order to fit audience demographic profiles occurred with ‘I Am Legend’. In 1954 Richard Matheson wrote this science fiction novel about the only man on earth not afflicted with vampirism.
In 1964, AIP made a cheap film version of it starring Vincent Price, which many acknowledge as the template for all â€˜living deadâ€™ movies that have followed.
1968 saw the arrival of the second film version,Â â€˜The Omega Manâ€™. If youâ€™ve seen this, you may recall that the war between scientist Robert Neville and the infected was one of conflicting ideologies; Nevilleâ€™s technological determinism was the cause of the worldâ€™s end. The sick now shunned technology and turned back to faith in order to save the planet. Once the relationship between Neville and his infected opposite number, the intellectually conservative Matthius, had been established, we knew the conflict could not be resolved without Nevilleâ€™s death because he was the last representative of the old guard, the true Omega Man who had to be superseded by religious zealots as the clock of civilisation was reset.
Complicating this was the fact that Matthius was himself infected, while the scientist Neville was not.Â Therefore there could be no real winners. While the virus might be halted, it couldnâ€™t eradicate the new ideology, and to that extent Neville was as extinct as a dinosaur. This was the idea that drove the story and gave it so much resonance.
And so we arrive at the third â€˜re-visioningâ€™ (Like â€˜imagineerâ€™ and â€˜quadrilogyâ€™, this is a word that should never, ever be used)Â in 2007, starring Will Smith, and in this version the ideological impasse is the first thing to go. â€˜I Am Legendâ€™ is a triumph of style over ingenuity. Post-apocalyptic New Yorkâ€™s return to nature, all buzzing insects and grass thrusting through cracked concrete, is rendered in impeccable detail. Then the CGI zombies arrive and everything ends up in a welter of cheap shocks.
Now the infected werenâ€™t real people, but had been replaced by superhuman computer animations. They couldnâ€™t even speak, so there was no conflict at all, except the bog-standard Zombies VS Survivors tropes weâ€™ve seen a million times before. When Charlton Heston sat in a cinema and mouthed the dialogue from â€˜Woodstockâ€™, he overturned our assumptions about him and made a point about free will. Will Smith got to duplicate the scene by mouthing dialogue fromâ€¦â€™Shrekâ€™. No longer could a simple idea be communicated to a mass audience without fear of alienating them.
More pernicious was the creepy use of the escape to Eden that â€˜I Am Legendâ€™ offered. Instead of a white Neville having sex with an independent black woman, we now had a black man chastely hanging out with a God-fearing (and safely light-skinned mixed-race) Brazilian girl. Instead of heading off to live in a flawed, argumentative commune built around new alternative families, something that would replace the traditional failing model of family life, we had the survivors arriving in a heavily guarded fortress town that looked like an isolationist Mormon Disneyland sponsored by the National Rifle Association. SF is required to reflect the era of its creation, which is why â€˜I Am Legendâ€™ rankles.