NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A 'Legend' of a Tale, Remade for Era After Era

When I Am Legend opened on Friday, it was the fourth time Hollywood had taken a stab at Richard Matheson's 1954 novella — a tale that imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone but our hero has turned into mutants.

Maybe the idea of a lone human shooting at mutants is irresistible to certain filmmakers.

Or maybe there's a fan base that's just not satisfied yet.

"If they're like me, they're hoping someone will finally get it right," says writer John Joseph Adams.

Adams isn't just a fan of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. He edited an anthology of it called Wastelands. He credits Matheson with inspiring the likes of Stephen King and creating a benchmark for the genre.

In Matheson's book, it's germ warfare that leads to a ghastly worldwide plague.

"It's one of the bleakest novellas I've ever read, for sure," Adams says. "The whole world's become vampires, and there's the one guy left. And it doesn't look good."

In the original book, the last man standing fortifies his little house against former friends and neighbors. They come out at night thirsting for his blood. The first film adaptation, from 1964, hews closest to the novel — though not close enough for Adams.

"Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay," he explains, "but then they made so many changes he made them take his name off of it."

That first film, called The Last Man on Earth, stars Vincent Price in what Adams calls an unforgivably hammy performance.

Besides which: "The production values are just terrible. It's not a good movie."

The remake, from 1971, pitted Charlton Heston against the ghoulish survivors. The Omega Man is notable now mostly for its then-daring interracial romance, and for an amazing opening sequence that might be the template for half the world's video games: Heston cruises a deserted downtown Los Angeles in a red Ford Galaxy convertible, picking off mutants with a shotgun.

"My first exposure to the story was Omega Man, says Akiva Goldsman, who produced and wrote the screenplay for I Am Legend. It's the fourth remake and opened Friday.

Goldsman says the appeal runs deeper than a hyper-survivalist storyline. He says it's a timeless existential fable.

"Feeling isolated and disconnected, and feeling like there's nothing left to hope for — these are real, human experiences," he says.

Updating I Am Legend meant more to Goldsman than casting megastar Will Smith and moving the action to New York. While earlier versions were preoccupied by the Atomic Age, today's I Am Legend has a faith-based message, articulated in the film by one devoutly Christian survivor: "The world is quieter now; you just have to listen. If you listen you can hear God's plan."

"We felt that people broke out into two categories in terrible circumstances — people who had hope and people who didn't," Goldsman says. "And those with hope had a much better chance of survival."

Hope here means faith in God as well as faith in science — and that's a new twist to Matheson's story. Still, Akiva Goldsman says every adaptation of I Am Legend reiterates the original's power.

"It all sort of mixes together in time, and the story adds to itself," he says. "Times change, movies change, and apparently I Am Legend keeps getting made."

So we're due for the next remake, presumably, some time around 2028.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.