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The Legend of I Am Legend

By David Konow

The story behind the three versions of the genre classic, and how Ridley Scott almost made a version with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As science fiction and fantasy fans can attest, the late Richard Matheson was one of the greatest writers in genre storytelling. His works include The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone (including Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), Somewhere in Time, and I Am Legend, just to name a few. And for that last work, Matheson was able to see his story turned into three movies before he passed last year. He considered the first two unsatisfactory, but the last one, starring Will Smith, ultimately pleased Matheson with the end result.

“It’s really not my novel, but it was very well done,” Matheson said. “And I thought Will Smith was excellent. He conveyed the sense of loss for his family that I had in the book, I thought he did that very well.” Although a cult favorite story like I Am Legend seems like a no-brainer to remake, it took about twenty- five years for it to finally hit the big screen in its last incarnation. Before the Will Smith version, it came very close to getting made with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead and Ridley Scott directing, but the project fell apart over budget and script issues.

The inspiration for I Am Legend came when Matheson saw Dracula at the age of sixteen. Like many classic genre stories, Matheson used the question of “what if” as a launching point. “When I left the theater, I thought, Gee, one vampire is scary…what if the whole world was full of vampires?” He didn’t get around to writing Legend until 1952, and it was published as a short story in 1954. “When I set it in the future, 1976, that was the future.”

Matheson tried to put himself in the position of the main character of all his stories, and he placed I Am Legend in the tract-housing neighborhood he lived in at the time in Gardenia, California. He also tried to make the story realistic by explaining the vampires in a scientific way.

Several years after Legend was published, Matheson was contacted by Hammer Films, the classic British horror studio, who wanted to turn it into a movie. Matheson flew to England, and wrote his own screen adaptation. Hammer had just done their versions of Frankenstein and Dracula, which starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Both were very bloody films for their time, and when Hammer submitted the script for Legend to the British censors, they replied “Absolutely not!,” and the project died.

Hammer then sold the script to a producer in Hollywood, and Matheson wasn’t pleased with the finished film, The Last Man on Earth, which starred Vincent Price, but if he took his name off the film, he wouldn’t get residuals. “I had four children, and I couldn’t afford that, so I invented a pen name: Logan Swanson,” he recalled.

In 1971 came the next big-screen adaptation, The Omega Man, which is now a camp classic starring Charlton Heston at his scenery chewing best. Before The Omega Man, Matheson tried to get another adaptation of the story going again with Hammer, who wanted the movie to stay close to the original story. Dan Curtis, the producer of the classic horror shows Dark Shadows and Kolchak The Night Stalker, was also interested in making a version of Legend that would have been faithful to the book.

The problem was the rights got mixed up when Hammer sold the script way back in the day. The rights for the script were owned by one business entity, and the rights to the short story was owned by another. Once The Omega Man was up and running, Matheson wasn’t even told about it, but it didn’t matter. The finished film was so ridiculous, and so far removed from the story, “it didn’t even bother me because nobody would even recognize it.”

In the late nineties, Legend almost got remade with Schwarzenegger and Ridley Scott.

Then in the late nineties, Legend almost got remade with Schwarzenegger and Ridley Scott. Schwarzenegger was at tail end of his time on the Hollywood A-list, and he was still a few years away from reinventing himself as a politician. Ridley Scott was an inspired choice for director, although with Schwarzengger playing the lead character, it took away his vulnerability. Just the Schwarzenegger name alone guaranteed he’d be kicking some serious vampire ass, but Scott’s sensibilities as a director probably would have kept Legend from turning into another Ah-nold one liner fest. (Matheson’s personal choice to play the hero Neville was Harrison Ford, which would've been a good pick at the time.)

Mark Protosevich (The Cell) and John Logan (Rango), took passes at the script, which Matheson read when Legend was in development. “The script wasn’t bad,” Matheson said. “It just wasn’t my book. But I’m sure Ridley would have done a great job, he’s a brilliant director.”

This incarnation of Legend was set in San Francisco in the year 2000, and the first hour of the film had no dialogue. A report on Wikipedia called the script “a bold, artistic mash of sci-fi action and psychological thriller,” and The Huffington Post, who wrote a report on this incarnation of Legend, also called the screenplay “delightfully dark and thoughtful.”

Yet the film reached a crisis point in December 1997. Warner Brothers was under pressure to keep their budgets under control by shareholders, and Scott couldn’t shave $15 million off the Legend budget, which would have come out to a little under $100 million. As Scott told writer Paul M. Sammon, “To do this kind of film today, which shows one man living in a desolate, deserted city, costs a certain amount of money. You just can’t do it on the street with the budget I was given. I said, ‘Look, it can only be done with this budget.’ Interestingly, we weren’t that far apart on the question of how much was needed to do this properly. But then Warners suddenly said shut it down.” (The film went as far as make-up tests for the vampires, which you see below.)

Legend finally fell apart at Warner Brothers in March 1998, and Scott went on to direct Gladiator instead. Finally, less than ten years later, I Am Legend hit the big screen again, with a reported budget of $150 million, and it was a huge smash, making nearly $600 million world-wide.

I Am Legend made the best-seller lists again, and Matheson was amazed that at the age eighty-two he was a hot author in popular culture. “There seems to be something about my stories that hang on,” Matheson told me at the time. “I wrote this over fifty years ago, and it’s still valid. Not to pat myself on the back, but maybe my stories are timeless. I never knew that The Twilight Zone was going to last so long. It just sort of hung on year after year. People had to write letters back then saying, ‘Don’t cancel it,’ but they’re still showing it.”

With the renewed popularity of Legend, the story got turned into a video game and a graphic novel, and Matheson was pleased with both, especially the graphic novel, which followed his story word for word.

Richard Matheson passed away on June 23, 2013 at the age of eighty-seven. He was not only in the ironic position of seeing I Am Legend being made three times in his lifetime, but he also thankfully got to see a decent version of his classic story get made before he died.

Matheson’s son, Richard Christian Matheson, is now in charge of his father’s estate, and he’s currently working on the remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man for MGM. Both Legend and Shrinking Man have been two of his father’s longest lasting stories, and as Richard Christian tells us, “One of the things my father had a unique gift for was placing a single character in a situation that was extraordinary, and watching them try to save themselves. Where it’s Duel, I Am Legend, or Shrinking Man, that particular algebra was really his gift.

“The story of I Am Legend is pure, simple, and visceral at the same time,” Richard Christian continues. “There’s a melancholia, a loneliness, there’s a great emotional despair and loss in Legend and Shrinking Man. That sense of losing everything is part of what makes these stories so powerful. They’re not just horror stories, they’re great studies of human loneliness. With both stories, he stumbled into a central concept that was overwhelming, and he wrote it brilliantly in both cases.”