Book Review: I Am Legend

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. But he’s not alone.

An unstoppable plague has devastated the world’s population, killing millions and transforming the survivors into ravenous night-walkers, thirsty for blood. No one is left unscathed. No man, no woman, no child.

Except for Robert Neville.

Miraculously immune to the plague, Neville is a hunter-gatherer by day – stalking the undead as they sleep, and collecting any useful supplies he can get his hands on. By night, he barricades himself in his house, hoping for dawn. His chances of surviving this murderous new world grow smaller by the hour, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Or drive him insane. Whichever happens first.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is another book I became acquainted with via film. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version (starring Will Smith) impressed me a great deal with its tautly-crafted story, complex themes, and profound biblical imagery. It also got a fair amount of flack from fans of the novel, who dismissed it as “yet another Hollywood adaption run amuck.”

I’ve experienced both now – the movie and the book. And though they differ from one another quite a bit, I can honestly say I have a deep appreciation for both. I appreciate the movie for its sophisticated rumination on grace, faith, and redemption. I appreciate the book for its intriguing scientific-backdrop, gripping psychological study, and for the clever (and grimly ironic) nature of its conclusion.

Matheson drops us straight into the heart of the story with one of the best opening lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

The uncertainty of survival – and hints to the dreadful consequences of a single misstep on Neville’s part – are both ominously present in that sentence. And as we read on, we feel a perversely compelling certainty that this story can’t have a “happily ever after” sort of ending.

It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the finale for you; suffice it to say, it’s pretty bleak. Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either. It does, however, prove fitting within the story’s (already bleak) context – and you’ll never look at the title the same way again.

As the tale progresses, Matheson – through the character of Neville – establishes a fairly plausible scientific explanation for the vampires’ existence. I thoroughly enjoyed that part, and if that sort of stuff interests you, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

Most interesting (for me, at least) was “watching” Neville cope with his aloneness. For years, his thoughts have been his only company. No contact with another living being whatsoever. That, combined with the constant threat of violence and death, has begun to take its toll.

To further complicate matters, the vampires that hunt him aren’t just any vampires – they were once his friends and neighbors. And they still recognize him, even in their crazed, plague-ridden state. When darkness falls, they surround his house and call to him: “Come out, Neville! Come out!” Night after night after bloody night. That’ll mess with your head…

Neville’s cynicism and outright despair are not surprising, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a man with faith in God might respond differently under the same circumstances. Neville has nothing outside of himself to turn to, because he believes there isn’t any such thing. There’s just him. And the vampires. And the certainty of a dark and lonely end.

Yet what might a Christian say to this? Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Do I recommend I Am Legend? Yes. It’s not particularly fun reading, but it is engaging and thought-provoking, and will give rise to plenty of interesting discussion. I should add that it’s not a book for younger readers: aside from the disturbing premise, it also has several scenes of violence, a smattering of language, and some sexual themes.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: I Am Legend”

  1. I’ve wondered about this book. Thanks for the review! Did you ever see “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston? I’m also wondering how you would compare this book with “The Road” (speaking of bleak, hehe).
    -Ben

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ben! :) I haven’t seen Omega Man, though I heard that it, too, was based on Matheson’s novel. I watched the trailer and it struck me as rather… campy, I guess. Much different from the serious tone of the book and Francis Lawrence’s adaption.

      I’d actually say that I Am Legend is bleaker than The Road. The latter, though quite grim, was inherently hopeful (primarily through the poignant father/son story), but I Am Legend ends on a much darker note.

      It’s still well worth a look, and I bet you’d enjoy it if you like sci-fi/apocalyptic/survivalist stories. I just wouldn’t hand it to anyone battling depression. It might push ’em over the edge. ;)

  2. Bleak is a good word for it, I greatly enjoyed the book for that very reason. It seemed to be a little more or a realistic look at a post-apocalyptic world, in my opinion. While I like ones that take a more positive look, Matheson, leaving only one man alive was wise to make it such I believe. However, I’m with you on the don’t give it to everybody recommendation, it’s probably a little more than some can handle.

    1. Yes, it was quite realistic. I’ve never minded bleak stories (or grim endings), and the conclusion of I Am Legend made perfect sense, given the context. Glad you enjoyed it, too! :D

  3. This one’s definitely on the bleak side, though I enjoyed the twisty way the title was worked in. But I appreciated that the film was inherently more hopeful. And Will Smith is awesome, so that particular man crush has the film the clear winner for me.

    1. That hopefulness really is quite beautiful, without being sentimental in the slightest. It’s definitely an underrated flick, and ranks among my all-time favorite sci-fi movies. And yeah – Will Smith was awesome. :) I can’t believe he didn’t nab an Oscar for his performance…

  4. Another great review, Ink. “Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either.” Hmm! That boggles my lil brain. I might have to watch the movie first. :-)

    1. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to explain without giving away spoilers. :) The movie’s great – well-made, intense, and very thought-provoking (especially from a Christian standpoint.)

  5. Your description of the aloneness of the main character reminds me of the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks. Have you seen that movie? I thought it was a good depiction of a man alone without God to turn to.

    1. The writing was superb, and had a pseudo-documentary tone to it which fit the story well. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by strange sentence or words, but… no, I didn’t find anything strange about Matheson’s prose. :)

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