Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

Published less than ten years after the end of World War II and the detonation of two atomic bombs, I Am Legend was part of a revival of disaster theme literature. Earlier in the century, literature of this sort was less common and usually centered on natural catastrophe. Notable examples...

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Published less than ten years after the end of World War II and the detonation of two atomic bombs, I Am Legend was part of a revival of disaster theme literature. Earlier in the century, literature of this sort was less common and usually centered on natural catastrophe. Notable examples of this earlier type include Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1915) and S. Fowler Wright’s Deluge (1928). In England, post-World War II disaster literature continued this emphasis on natural catastrophe, for example in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956). U.S. science-fiction writers, on the other hand, concentrated on disease, with George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) preceding I Am Legend by several years. Other noteworthy examples include Algis Budry’s Some Will Not Die (1961), Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978; text restored, 1990).

I Am Legend was Matheson’s first science-fiction novel, and it established his reputation in the field. He followed it with two others, The Shrinking Man (1956) and Bid Time Return (1975), which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel of 1975. For the most part, Matheson’s writing blends fantasy and science fiction in a combination that is more mysterious than explicable, more fanciful than possible. Critics and scholars have noted that the major theme in nearly all of Matheson’s work has been paranoia. Thus, in I Am Legend, to preserve his own life Robert Neville is driven to annihilate the vampires who threaten him. Likewise, the living vampires become obsessed with destroying their enemies: the reanimated dead and the monster, Neville. In dramatizing this theme, Matheson recasts the legend of Count Dracula and his legion of the undead, substituting the objective, rational, systematic inquiry of science for the subjective, illogical, impressionistic observation of superstition. When I Am Legend concludes, however, humankind clings to the old ways.

In his writing, Matheson elevates fantasy and horror above science fiction. It is not surprising, then, that although he initially was considered to be a science-fiction writer, by the late 1950’s he was mainly creating, with enormous success, terror and fantasy for television series such as The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery; for television films such as Duel (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg; and for theatrical films, particularly Roger Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories. Matheson adapted I Am Legend into a screenplay for the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth but demanded that his name be removed when the screenplay was rewritten. Matheson was not involved in the better-known film adaptation, The Omega Man (1971).

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