Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND has so far resisted translation into film. The first attempts—LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN—were both admirable in their ways but were not even close to being faithful adaptations.

Matheson wrote a screenplay for Hammer to produce, but it was deemed unfilmable due to the blood and gore. It got sold to cheapo U.S. producer Robert Lippert. To the surprise of no one, the producer of both the prestige THE FLY and the cheap RADAR SECRET SERVICE made a cheap film version of one of the great horror novels.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH’s vampire/zombies beat George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to the screen. The book’s vampires are repelled by garlic, but other than that they don’t share much with traditional vampires. They’re not really ghouls, either, but the walking dead who seem driven to kill that damned human who’s been staking their pals while they sleep. That one element taken from the book became a big influence on Romero.

The book’s strength was a pre-Stephen King emphasis on a Gothic creation updated to modern suburbia. But when the movie went the cheap route, shooting in an American suburb, with all the production design headaches that would entail, was dismissed. The movie was shot in Italy, where some of the non-American-suburb architecture is intriguing but wrong. Instead of happening in the viewer’s neighborhood, the movie takes place in a Brutalist future world. All by itself, this choice of filming location bleeds the movie of the everyday realism it needs.

Worse, Vincent Price is just wrong as Matheson’s Regular Joe. Instead of you, a male left alone after his wife and kid and neighbors are all killed, it’s like your creepy unmarried uncle, who you don’t much like in the first place, fending off people who don’t like him very much.

It’s too late for me to think of a dumb pun. You’re welcome.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH was so compromised that they probably could’ve gotten away with a “Story by” credit for Matheson. The listless Franca Bettoia is the only other real character, and she sure doesn’t seem like an American gal who sparks possibilities with our creepy uncle. The ending isn’t bad, and some of the staking and day-to-day details. But the movie lacks energy.

According to online sources, Lippert almost made a movie of George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES. I can’t imagine the travesty he would’ve made of that, so I’m glad it didn’t happen.

The second adaptation of the nove was THE OMEGA MAN.

Matheson really did not like this version, and for good reason. It uses the situation from the book but transfers it from the suburbs to the big city and substitutes a Manson-like Family of pasty people for the vampires. Co-screenwriter Joyce Corrington was blunt about using germ warfare as the driver of the plague as opposed to Matheson’s scientific rationale for blood-sucking. There are some good things in the movie: Rosalind Cash’s performance, the empty streets of L.A. (shot on Sunday mornings) and Charlton Heston’s arrogance and forcefulness in the role of the last man alive. The scenes that come closest to the novel are those of Robert Neville methodically checking off locations he has to check for albinos to stake. This “horror in contemporary America” angle is crucial to the novel. Once again, the suburban location is gone, but at least they do something about a deserted city that is more involving than in the previous version–the telephone scene, watching a movie alone, picking up a new car. They used the location in appropriate ways.

OMEGA MAN is a 70’s science fiction actioner with some potent moments that rewrites the plot and skips the meaning of the book’s ending (again). For all the guffaws Neville’s crucifixion gets today, it’s a legit ending, and is prepared for; it’s just not the point of the book’s ending.

The presence of Rosalind Cash adds some Black Power energy–not in the book, of course, but at least it’s interesting, as we see Lisa’s initial hostility. All we know about the conflict between Neville and The Family is that they hate him because he represents The Past. Now, this IS a blatant use of the elements of the book’s climax. But without the ending, the conflict really loses a lot of impact. It’s just a horror version of the Generation Gap which was so overt in contemporary culture. Seeing a white military man and a militant black woman work through their disagreements and mutual attraction is rare for any seventies movie, so it’s a valuable addition to the story, but Old White Man Bad has dated as a theme. Well, for me it has.

Matheson’s novel is about a basic human fear—alienation from the rest of humanity—and much of the book shows Neville alone, going crazy from loneliness. It’s a gruelling yet gripping read because it is unpretentious and feels true. Matheson’s stripped-down style—different from Ray Bradbury’s or Donald Westlake’s stripped-down styles—is seemingly plain, and draws the reader in, making the horror seem real. Matheson’s books READ like screenplays, which is why the revamping by the Corringtons, who come off as above this piddly little horror paperback, are hit-and-miss, some working, others merely changing things around to little effect.

They didn’t listen to all that ‘cold dead hands’ stuff.

Next came Will Smith in I AM LEGEND.

Set in New York, the visual effects of the empty city are well done–the CGI for the mutants is pretty bad. It might’ve been more effective with more silent scenes, but Will Smith gives his best performance as Robert Neville, and the movie’s visuals support the situation perfectly. It really is one of the very best post-humanity depictions on film. The suspense scenes are well done.

For about an hour I thought, “They finally licked the book.”

Then we get The Woman and The Kid.

Once Smith isn’t alone anymore the movie drags. The character of Anna Montez just doesn’t compare well with the women Neville meets in the book and OMEGA MAN.

The problem with LAST MAN is casting.

The problem with OMEGA MAN is deviation from the book’s story.

The problem with I AM LEGEND is the treatment of the mutants, and the killing of suspense and tension when Neville is rescued by Anna. She’s a Modern Woman, which means she don’t need no man, and in fact she SAVES the man. OK, fine, but in the book the woman character wasn’t a rescuer, but a mystery. As Neville wanted companionship he was also wary and conflicted. The tension RISES when the woman shows up in the book, because we just don’t know what her presence means. In the movie, the woman is a savior, relieving tension when it should be building. The kid, well, I’m prejudiced against the use of kids in these kinds of movies. Yes, that includes Newt.

The problem with all three adaptations is that they avoid one of the best things about the novel: the ending.

The ending that explains the title I AM LEGEND.

The book’s ending tells us, finally, that Neville is the last of the human race, and the infected/mutants are the NEW humans, the NEW ‘normal,’ and they consider Neville a monster. All this time he’s been the Normal One fighting The Monsters, but he actually is abnormal, unique in this world populated by mutants.

The hero is not Beowulf. He’s Grendal.

And that’s mind-blowing to someone who thought they were reading a Gothic updated to fifties America.

It’s a brilliant ending twist, like revealing that Dracula was the good guy and Harker was the real vampire. But the movies just can’t get there. LAST MAN almost pulls it off, but it falls flat–it feels like Price’s character has just been killed by the monsters, without that mythic Twilight of Man snap. OMEGA MAN tries to replace it with the Messiah Crucified ending. The Will Smith version ends with our feelings for Neville intact, he’s a good man on his way to join his wife and daughter in the afterlife, while there is still hope for humanity…

Why is this ending so hard for the movies to pull off?