One source novel, three very different adaptations (four if you count the mockbuster). Richard Matheson’s classic novel “I Am Legend” would go on to inspire the entire post-apocalyptic subgenre for decades to come, and there’s a reason the story kept getting adapted.
Now with pandemic-related fears and anxieties all around the world, many are turning to films like these as a form of ironic escapism, and even catharsis.
So we thought it would be fun to analyze all three adaptations of Matheson’s book (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and I Am Legend) and definitely determine which one reigns supreme!
Round I – The Hero
Each film relies very heavily on their respective protagonist, as him being the last survivor (or so he thinks) means that the lead actors’ performances have to carry the whole movie.
Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith each bring their own persona to the screen, which results in three very different portrayals.
Price gives us a very intellectual version of the character, while still being very theatrically-oriented as was the norm of the time. Through many flashbacks, we watch him try to contain the initial outbreak, and slowly devolve into despair as he knows it is it helpless.
And upon discovering that he himself is the monster to the vampires, he is horrified. There’s a great sense of melancholy to his performance, fitting with this type of post-apocalyptic thriller.
Heston opts for the full gun-toting action hero main character, which isn’t at all surprising given the actor’s history and affiliation with the NRA.
While he definitely has a great screen presence that we’ve seen in such classics as Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man features as Heston that’s very much a well-loved movie star, and it kind of shows.
It always seems like he’s trying to be a cool maverick hero-type, and the grim reality of his situation never really seems to bother him.
Will Smith however, manages to bring his immense action charisma, but also a deep solemnity to the role. More so than his predecessor’s we truly feel the loneliness and isolation getting to him, as evidenced by the video store populated by mannequins.
As well as his sense of impending madness the longer he is without human contact. Price plays a great scientist, Heston a great action hero, but Smith manages to pull off both, while also conveying the vulnerable, emotional, human side.
Round I Winner – I Am Legend
Round II – The Villains
If the hero must carry the story in each of these films, then the villains must carry the fear and suspense throughout. Matheson’s novel described them as traditional vampires, and while each iteration portrays a slightly different type of “infected” person, they each instill fear in their own way.
I Am Legend features the most monstrous and ferocious of them, taking inspiration from other contemporary “infected” films such as 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Here the “Darkseekers” do still have some semblance of intelligence, but it’s buried beneath an animalistic exterior, as well as subpar CGI (which we’ll get to).
The Last Man on Earth gives us more typical “undead” creatures, that aren’t very over the top, but don’t seem very threatening either. Matthias and his “Family” from Omega Man are another matter entirely.
They are by far the most intelligent and interesting, often coming off as more of a religious cult than a nest of creatures. They, better than their remake counterparts really drive the point home that this is their world, not Robert Neville’s.
Round II Winner – The Omega Man
Round III – Story/Plot
Every adaptation from literature takes creative liberties, so it wouldn’t be very fair to compare these based upon how faithful they are to the novel. So instead we’ll look at how each one holds together from beginning to end.
Omega Man sets up a fascinating intellectual conflict between Neville and the philosophically inclined Matthias. But, this intense dichotomy is never fully explored because the film focuses too much on shootouts and action.
There’s nothing wrong with taking an action approach, but not at the expense of story and character development.
I Am Legend does a great job of portraying both an empty world, as well as Neville’s desperation and loneliness. But it also sets up a subplot about the Darkseekers creating a trap and being more intelligent than Neville thought, but ultimately it goes nowhere.
The original ending completed this story arc, but Warner Brothers wanted a more action-packed ending, at the expense of plot consistency.
The Last Man on Earth builds the suspense perfectly, first showing us the bleak future, then via flashback, showing how everything went wrong.
Finally, when the twist is revealed that the vampires have become civilized themselves, the movie treats this ending with all the gravity and creepiness it deserves.
Round III Winner – The Last Man on Earth
Round IV – Effects/Technical Specs
Visual effects can often be representative of the time a film was made, as they get better with each year (mostly). So we’re going to judge this round based on how the effects held up at the time of release, as well as how they hold up today.
The Last Man on Earth came from an era where films were essentially theatrical productions that were recorded, and it very much shows.
The characters, dialogue, and story are all great, but there weren’t very many creative choices in terms of camerawork, direction, or other effects.
By 2007, visual effects had certainly come a long way, but many studios were relying far too much on CGI, and I Am Legend is no different.
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith admitted that initially they were going to go with actors in makeup, but felt it looked too cheesy, so they went with actors in motion capture suits for a full CGI image.
While it may sound unfair to criticize the effects for not aging well, they didn’t look very good in 2007 either. Gollum in Lord of the Rings looked far better, and was featured several years earlier.
Enter, The Omega Man. What it lacked in story and character, it made up for in well-choreographed action scenes, practical effects, and lots of stunts.
That, and a really catchy instrumental score (compliments on Ron Grainer) that feels very early 70’s in all the right ways. His music juxtaposed with creative stunt work and action makes for a very thrilling cinematic experience.
Round IV Winner – The Omega Man
Round V – Tone/Style
It’s kind of amazing to think these all came from the same source because in many ways each movie feels like an entirely different genre. Omega Man feels more like an action thriller, which works for his upbeat mood.
I Am Legend feels the most like a horror film, but never really commits to any stylistic choices. It’s well shot and directed, but just doesn’t have a “style” that it owns.
The Last Man on Earth is very much a product of its time, but that works it its advantage here. Between the black and white film, narration by Vincent Price, and just overall eerie tone throughout, it has the very vintage 50’s/60’s feel that just adds to the aesthetic.
In many ways, this first adaption felt very much like a feature length episode of Twilight Zone, and that’s why it wins this round!
Round V Winner – The Last Man on Earth
Round VI – Scares
This wouldn’t really be a horror movie showdown without factoring in just how scary each one is. We know that horror, like comedy, can be quite subjective, but when you think about it, there’s a clear winner here.
As much fun as Omega Man is, the Family is composed of mutated people, still behaving like people, therefore it’s hard to legitimately be scared of them.
Last Man on Earth features zombie like mutants, but they seem far less threatening than even the zombies of Night of the Living Dead. As they spend every night banging on Morgan’s door, never actually breaking in.
From the beginning however, I Am Legend establishes that the Darkseekers don’t know where Neville lives, and for very good reason. He’s very careful to cover his scent when he goes back there, because as soon as they discover his location, they swarm it en masse and easily break in.
Between this, and their incredibly monstrous behavior, it makes it all the more frightening when we discover they’re smart enough to set a trap.
Round VI Winner – I Am Legend
Round VII – Themes/Ideas
All three movies take a very different approach with their adaptation, which results in three very different messages. The Omega Man toys with the idea of the Family being their own society and not wanting to be “cured”.
But they ignores this completely with a Christ allegory as Neville dies in a cross-like position, but with just enough time to give his blood to be used to make a cure.
I Am Legend takes a similar idea with the title being a reference to Neville’s legacy, and his sacrificing himself leading to the cure. Only The Last Man on Earth has the guts to commit fully to the idea that this is no longer his world, but theirs.
The whole point of the original novel (as well as the meaning behind the title) was that from the vampires’ point of view, Morgan was the monster, the boogeyman who hunted them while they slept in the day.
The other two versions take a much more simplified theme of the hero saving the world, while Last Man on Earth dares us to think deeper and realize that the word is beyond “saving” and that a new world has replaced the old one.
That we could just as easily become extinct and the world would belong to someone else. The Last Man on Earth doesn’t win for being the most accurate adaptation, rather it wins because the book was by far the best version of the story, and by following it closely, it’s the best film version of that plot and story.
Round VII (and overall) Winner – The Last Man on Earth