Sunday, May 13, 2012

I Am Legend, or How Sexism Survived the Vampire Apocalypse

This is one of those many times when I wouldn't recommend seeing the movie before reading the book, because the movie was quite a lot better I thought. Although, they're not really comparable because they diverge drastically plot-wise. So let's not even compare them then. I take it all back.

Robert Neville is the last human left. He's pretty sure. During the day, he goes out for supplies, replaces the damaged planks over his windows, hangs fresh garlic around the outside of the house . . . and stakes his neighbors through the heart while they sleep.

A sickness has swept through the population, turning everyone, one by one, into vampires. So every evening, Neville locks himself inside his house, pours himself a whiskey and soda, and turns up the classical music to drown out the sounds of the bloodthirsty crowd assembling outside his door. 

I had to remind myself a couple of times that this story was written in 1954. Because . . . well, let me just share with you what I scribbled in my notebook after reading the first 20 pages.
"What I know so far about Robert Neville: He is a man. He can use tools. He doesn't like to clean. He is controlling his sexual urges with difficulty. He is a man."
I picture a slightly disheveled Jon Hamm. Oh . . . you want an actual picture? WELL I WON'T GIVE YOU ONE. (Just kidding.)

The last rakishly handsome chauvinist on earth.

But the book does get a little better, despite Neville's stereotypical macho-man characteristics and the general subjugation of women lady vampires. We get some back story on Neville. We find out that he's just an ordinary guy, not equipped with any special knowledge to make him particularly suited for surviving the near extinction of the human race. In fact, he's often infuriatingly dense.
"Something had killed the vampire; something brutally effective. The heart had not been touched, no garlic had been present, and yet . . .
It came, seemingly, without effort. Of course---the daylight!
A bolt of self-accusation struck him. To know for five months that they remained indoors by day and never once to make the connection! He closed his eyes, appalled by his own stupidity." (p. 38)
Nosferatu is also appalled by your stupidity.

Coping with isolation is the dominant theme for most of the story. And then it kind of morphs into a powerful commentary on "otherness" . . . and how the ruling majority can become the ruled minority practically overnight.

So what have we learned? Always read the book before the movie. And, yep, I think that's pretty much it.


  1. As the Crowe Flies and ReadsMay 13, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    Ahh yes.  Reading 1950s novels through the lens of feminism can be *very* frustrating!
    I'm not sure I'll read this one, but I confess I did see the movie.  Scared the pants off of me, not that it takes much.

  2.  I wished this book had been written by someone else. It was such a cool idea but then it was all "I am man! Watch me drink from my endless supply of whiskey that was no affected by the apocalypse. I also have an endless supply of whiskey glasses, which is good because I often smash these against the wall  because I am SO MANLY."

  3. Bleurgh, the sexisming sounds non-good.

    That was a good sentence right there! Also, OMG beardy Hamm *hyperventilates a bit*

    Also, unrelated to this, but Revolutionary Road! I hope you like it cause I like it :) And I hope you like Mad Men, because they remind me of each other (I can't remember which one I experienced first. So, each other!)

  4. THE MOVIE IS SO GOOD. (Except for the part with the dog...I hate that part.)

  5. This is the only one I've read . . . but it's good to know I don't need to bother with the others. (I just looked up Somewhere in Time on IMDb, and IT LOOKS AMAZING.)

    GAIMAAAAN. I think my love for him has more to do with him as a person than anything he actually writes. I'm OK with that decision.

  6. It WAS a cool idea . . . which is why I really loved the movie. I just couldn't connect with Neville in the book the way I did on the screen. He didn't have enough depth, and he was too busy smashing whiskey glasses against the wall and trying not to be seduced by lady vamps.

  7. That was a GREAT sentence! I've been reading it over and over for the past 15 minutes.

    YES, Revolutionary Road. It makes me feel better that you liked it, because I've been scared to read it . . . due to the terrible-marriage theme and all that. I don't like to dwell on such things generally, but so far so good!

    I haven't seen a single episode of Mad Men. I'm so ashamed.


    And I will probably cry. Also I always turn it off ten minutes from the end, so I've basically forgotten the real ending.

  9. To me, the book seemed to be an allegory about white flight -- it took place in Compton after all.  Also, I thought the movie was lacking because Will Smith's character just happened to be the very scientist who was working on a a cure for the virus, whereas in the book the main character was just a random nobody who was lucky enough to have  immunity (truly a more plausible scenario). Also, the ending of the book was much better -- he was the monster, not the new vampire civilization that had taken over Compton and beyond.

  10. Humorous description; I like it. But I must note that the main character in the book was just some random guy from Compton who happened to be immune to the virus. He was the everyman nobody. He possessed no great intellect, courage or skills. Think about it: If a virus wiped out all but a few people who happened to have a natural immunity, is it more likely the survivors would be like this guy or would they happen to be Will Smith -- who just happened to be the very scientist who was fighting to find a cure for the virus.

    The book was realistic. The film, IMHO, was pure Hollywood sensationalism. Hollywood has altered our expectations -- we expect our main characters to be  fit, good-looking courageous people with attributes bordering on superpowers. The truth is 99.99% of us -- like the book's protagonist -- are not superheroes.

  11. Well-said, John. And you're absolutely right. As far as social commentary, the book was much more effective than the movie. I'm sure the standard Hollywood blockbuster treatment had something to do with that. And I completely forgot the book was set in Compton! That seems like vital information doesn't it? Ha!

    But, yeah, it was definitely interesting that Neville had no scientific qualifications to grapple with the situation. And I liked his theory for why he was immune to the infection. I'll probably reread this one at some point  and see how it strikes me the second time around.

  12. Thanks for the quick response. You must be, like me, slacking when you should be working. Anyway, despite all I said, I didn't hate the movie and would recommend it -- it's just that I made the unfortunate mistake of reading the book before watching it, which you clearly advise against.

    Fun blog, btw.

  13. You're 100% correct about book Neville being the "everyman." My problem with him is more that he doesn't display much depth, from my 21st century perspective. But Matheson WAS writing about a completely different time, so I realize we have to make allowances.

    I guess it just always surprises me in these end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories that certain prejudices and social constructs endure. Wouldn't "a woman's place" become a bit of a null issue when everyone is turning into a vampire? The ONE female character in the story is a pawn. She's the one sent to spy on Neville because she's a woman and she can use her body to gain the upper hand. That's the sole purpose of women STILL? After everything that's happened? And Neville, who is equally one-dimensional, falls for it because he's "only a man."

    Feminist rant over. : )

  14. My work habits involve multiple and frequent diversions. ; ) Thanks for the comments! You've given me some things to think about.

  15. I found the story "I am Legend" to be rather dry and dated, but the twist of perspective at the end was good.

  16. Yeeees. Very dated and a bit dry. But the raw material was meaningful and relevant, I think.

  17. Dude, I've read two books by this guy, and I did not get into either, but for at least ONE I love the movie. (ahem, Somewhere in Time — which is AMAZING do not even question that. because amazing)

    I think I just don't really like his writing style. He comes up with some neat ideas, but nope. Kinda like Neil Gaiman, only I'll bet he wasn't nearly as awesome as Gaiman.