Monday, December 3, 2007

That Will Smith Movie (SPOILER WARNING)

NOTE: This essay contains plot spoilers. You have been warned.

A plague has wiped out every human on the planet except Will Smith. But the disease doesn't just kill everyone – some of its victims turn into vampires. Every day, Smith hunts monsters, gathers food and supplies, and gives the audience flashback exposition. His wife and child are dead, victims of the pandemic. His own immunity has mysterious origins, but his blood may hold the key to humanity’s resurrection – because it turns out he isn’t really alone, after all! (Cue dramatic music…DUH duh duh DUUUHH)

If you think you’ve seen this movie before, you have. But I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me ask you this: When a movie is based on a book, how faithful does it have to be?

Any debate over book-to-movie translation deserves better than hair-splitting, nitpicky details. No book transfers perfectly from page to screen. If Hollywood included every word of Moby Dick in a movie, it would be fifteen hours long. Moreover, faithful adaptations of some novels might be utterly incomprehensible to a general audience. There are some literary scenes that just don’t translate well to cinema. Recognizing these limitations, let’s look at the history of Will Smith’s ‘new’ movie.

In 1954, Richard Matheson published the post-apocalyptic novella I Am Legend. Protagonist Robert Neville faces long odds. His life has become a horrible routine of vampire-destruction, supply-gathering, and nightly assaults by an undead mob. Along the way, he offers scientific explanations for a vampire’s aversion to garlic and mirrors, vulnerability to stakes, and some pithy commentary on civilization.

If the novel is a bit dated in style and content, Matheson more than compensates: He was one of the first authors to take the vampires out of their gothic castles and put them in the suburban American landscape, making them less romantic and more terrifying.

A few years after publication, Matheson’s novel was adapted into a classic horror flick starring Vincent Price, retitled The Last Man on Earth.

Video is 1:47 long.

Matheson wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym, so The Last Man on Earth is the most faithful adaptation. It keeps the Los Angeles setting and almost the entire storyline. Neville learns that some plague victims have learned to suppress their bloodthirsty natures; in a horrific twist, Neville’s been killing fellow survivors, not just shambling, mindless undead. These half-vampires are ready to recreate civilization, but Neville has become their terrifying monster – their legend. They must destroy him before they can move on.

The movie’s surrealist feel and Vincent Price’s enduring portrayal of a lonely man’s descent into psychosis elevated The Last Man on Earth to cult status. Then in 1971, the novel was re-adapted into a Charlton Heston picture, retitled as Omega Man:

Video is 2:58 long.

Omega Man keeps the setting, but drops the vampires. Instead of a natural plague, biological warfare destroys the world. There is more interaction between Heston’s Neville and the mutant “Family.” The ending has changed. After Heston saves the half-mutant survivors with the antibodies in his blood, he dies crucifixion-style, mourned as a ‘savior’ to the new human race.

And now, Will Smith stars in the latest version of I Am Legend. Strangely, the only movie version to use the novella’s actual title could be the least faithful adaptation. In a transparent stab at post-9/11 relevance, the setting has been moved to Manhattan.

Video is 2:37 long.

Price and Heston both captured Neville’s brooding despair; Smith has genuine acting chops, but his wisecracking comic style might not be the best fit for Robert Neville. And there’s the finale. Smith has earned kudos among the art-house crowd before, but does he – or Hollywood, for that matter – have the integrity to keep the very un-Hollywood ending?

Video is 1:58 long.

Each version of this movie is a product of its own time. The Last Man on Earth was made in the days of the Red Scare, Omega Man came at a low point in the Cold War, and I Am Legend is colored by the War on Terror. In each case, the novel has been filmed through a different lens to deliver a different message – or, perhaps, to be understood by a different audience.

And really, what’s changed most since 1953 is the viewer. Each version reflects a different America – and meets the expectations of a different audience.

In the Los Angeles of The Last Man on Earth, there are no blacks or Hispanics; all the actors are white. Omega Man has a Star Trek-style mixed cast, but the hero is still marketing-department Caucasian. I Am Legend features a black man in the starring role. Gender roles change in each movie, too; the fainting housewife of Last Man on Earth is a laughable stereotype fit only for parody today.

I would argue this is exactly why Hollywood can – and should – re-imagine stories. For students of classical studies, it’s a familiar situation: The three tragedians of ancient Athens all wrote plays based on the same myths, often with the same titles, but with very different interpretations of the story.

So even if Hollywood has trouble with originality, remakes aren’t necessarily the work of unimaginative studio executives. A movie that doesn’t speak to us in our own time is not going to make money, much less make an impact on us.

And before we condemn Hollywood for recycling stories, let’s remember that I Am Legend isn’t a totally original novel. Matheson based his book on Mary Shelley's The Last Man, published in 1826. Her novel was partly inspired by Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. And think about it: What other popular book features a lone man fighting off hordes of cannibals?

Video is 1:38 long.

That’s right! I Am Legend belongs to the literary genre known as Robinsonade, ‘invented’ by Daniel Defoe, who was inspired by the mostly-fictional travelogues from the Age of Discovery, beginning with Marco Polo...who was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. There’s no story that hasn’t been told before.

Even Defoe’s famous story has been readapted many times into science fiction:

Video is 3:48 long.

Video is 0:28 long.

So let’s modify the original question. How faithful does a Hollywood script have to be when a book’s inspirational origins have already been recycled hundreds of times? Maybe we would be better off asking whether the movie preserves the author’s intentions, or Hollywood has mucked about with the plot too much? Did the actors and writers faithfully render the characters?

And last, but definitely not least: Does the movie make you want to read the book?

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