Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Body Glue!

On very few occasions, I am able to say, "I enjoyed the movie more than the book." I Am Legend is one of those few exceptions. Maybe it's because the Will Smith version was not the first attempt to get the story right on the silver screen. Honestly, I don't remember The Omega Man enough to offer a fair comparison, but just comparing the Will Smith version to the text--the movie kept the monsters scary.
So, after reading I Am Legend, I wondered why I never felt afraid while I read. Certainly, Matheson wanted to create a creature that was realistic and terrifying, a mix of new and old, a combination of science and legend. So, where did he fall short? The phrase that keeps bouncing back into my mind is "body glue." This strange biological manipulation of the fictional bacteria within the host organism sounds more like a child's toy slime than a terrifying feature of an unstoppable demon.
Matheson's pseudo-scientific explanation for the vampires in his story is reflected in the phrase "body glue." By mixing creatures of lore with science, Matheson loses the mystery of the fiend and leaves a story full of gobbledygook that is either too unrealistic or too outdated to take seriously.  I think the hardest pill to swallow was trying to accept that vampirism was created by bacteria. Bacteria is a simplistic species, and as far as I know, not capable of much more than reproducing; altering the characteristics of  larger species seems impractical. Viruses, however, do alter larger species on a DNA level, and even today little is known about viruses (origins, why they exist, if they're living or dead...). I'm not sure why Matheson settled on bacteria over viral infections, but the story lost a lot of potential in that decision.
The scene with the dog is also important to point out. The film version uses pathos to connect the audience to Will Smith and his heroic canine. The written version leaves readers ambivalent. In the movie, Will Smith has the dog from puppyhood; in the text, the dog appears rather late and leaves rather quickly. Readers do not have the emotional connection as the disease consumes him. The text doesn't even show the disease consuming him. The story has Neville abducting the dog, whispering sweet nothings into its ear, and then the story leaves off with a passive sentence: "In a week the dog was dead" (100). Matheson's decision to cut off the dog's life with a passive line leaves readers feeling passive toward the dog, seeing him only as a means to foreshadow that living vampires are able to walk around in sunlight.
And then there's the ending. Although I  didn't completely appreciate the religious undertones the film version offered regarding faith and survival (and butterflies), the slightly optimistic end worked better than Matheson's mutation into another genre. The novel ends with Neville being brought into a new world order to be executed. Out with the old, in with the new, apparently. I believe Matheson was toying with the concepts of alteration and the reversal of mankind being the monster, but I think his theme changed too drastically.  I suppose this portion also reflects the omnipresent fears of the Cold War at the time of publication (the war that brings the disease about also hints at these fears), but they did not mesh with the fears found through the rest of the story. Although Matheson has an interesting story regarding Cold War fears, it's a story for another book. He lost sight of what I Am Legend was really about: the definition of a monster.
I don't want to end with anyone thinking I hated the story. There were several parts that worked very well (when Neville buries his wife and she comes back from the dead), and the premise is genius. If it weren't, the movie wouldn't have worked as well as it did. Still, I expected more.


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    1. I for one, loved the ending. I really enjoy how Matheson pulls a 180 near the end of the story and portrays Neville as being the legend, as being the bogeyman. I remember the first time I read the story I was really blown away with it, and I kept wondering how they were going to portray that aspect in the movie with Will Smith. I also remember walking away from the movie entertained but slightly disappointed as well. That beings said, I too was left wanting with his explanations of the bacteria. I found them to be boring and stiff, and they pulled me out of the story in all actuality. In either case, I like your take on it, as well as your focus on the dog. It is interesting to see what Hollywood wanted us to focus on, as opposed to what Matheson wanted us to focus on. I wonder if it is a product of the times?

  2. From my reading, I have to agree that the book is rather dated, both in style and from our scientific knowledge - although as I know next to nothing of microbiology, the pseudo-science was sort of lost on me. But that does tend to make one uninterested in such things gloss over those pages, throwing the reader out of the story.

    As for the dog, I agree Matheson had a great opportunity there and sort of wasted it - even if I was just as glad he did. As a dog-lover and knowing it died, I didn't want to form a bond with the creature. That, however, is a personal assessment only. It's presence would have been a great deal more powerful if Matheson had brought it in earlier and kept it on the pages, working along side Neville.

    One thing I have to say, since this is a writing program, and I may post it on the main course page, too. Somewhere along the line the difference between passive and weak sentences has gotten confused. (I heard it constantly at residency, too.) "In a week the dog was dead," is not actually passive. It uses a weak verb, but in this case, I felt "The dog was dead," had more punch than, "The dog died." It feels more final, somehow. However, it still puts the subject, the dog, before the verb and the object, being dead, after; therefore it's not technically passive. Sorry - this has been bothering me for a while.

    -Sara Lyon

    1. Sara, don't apologize for the comment about the "passive/weak sentence." Somewhere along the line, I've started enjoying such conversations. I looked passive sentences up before I made the post and made a judgement call. I looked at the sentence two ways. The first way I agree with you. It has a weak verb: "was dead" as opposed to "died." The second way I consider the sentence, I think of passive as the opposite of active, and I consider active to be in the state of doing an action. "Died" is an active verb because the action is occurring, and I'd call "was dead" passive because the action isn't happening any longer; the action has been done or something/someone else did the action. This may be incorrect, but it might clarify some of the reasoning behind the confusion between weak and passive sentences.

      To elaborate further, I use Willa Cather's O Pioneers as an example. After simplifying some her writing, I like to use an example sentence like, "The fields were plowed." This sentence is passive because the subject is dropped out completely. Who's doing the plowing? Nobody mentioned in the sentence. An active version would be, "The farmers plowed the fields," and a weak version would be "The farmers were plowing the fields." None are incorrect, and Cather uses loads of passive sentences to create a barren world.

      But let's take another example: "The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod..." This is a bit more complex. Who seated the houses in those positions? No one in the sentence. However, the subject could be "houses," in which case an active version would be, "The dwelling-houses sat about haphazardly...." In that version, the houses are doing the action of sitting and not being placed. So is Cather's version passive or weak?

      Now back to the Matheson's sentence: "In a week the dog was dead." The dog is doing the dying, but who killed (technically it's a verb change but technically the dog didn't just die either) the dog? Nothing in the sentence killed the dog. To make it stronger, more active, the sentence could read, "In a week the bacteria murdered the dog." Although incorporating the bacteria into the sentence reduces the mystery and makes the sentence less scary, the sentence now places blame. The dog didn't just flop over--something murdered it. Also, the "d" sound in "murdered" creates similar alliteration as "the dog was dead," and the final word, "dog," is still significant because it leaves the image of the dog in the reader's mind as it fades away from the story.

      So, hopefully, that adds a little insight as to why I labeled the sentence passive, but in the end, I agree with you, it's technically just the use of a weak verb.

    2. Ah, I see what you mean. A different sort of passive. It may be more a passive state or a passive verb, though. But you make a good point, and I wonder if the difference between active and passive states is the root of the confusion I've been seeing about whether sentences are themselves passive.

      As for Cather's example, I would say, "The dwelling-houses were set about..." is passive, as "were set" implies someone doing the action of placing them. (To simplify, "The log was jumped over," is passive, even though there is no one in the sentence doing the jumping.) Then again, this could simply be an example of dated writing. However, in Cather's example, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Passive has its own uses, particularly if the object being acted upon, in this case the houses, are more important than those who did the action or even the action itself. One would say, for example, "The President was bitten by a dog," rather than, "A dog bit the President." I know, these are very basic examples. So...another: "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care..." Passive, also with no one doing the action of hanging. But there is a sense of stillness to "were hung," that making it active, simply dropping "were," lacks. It reinforces the sense of waiting, of breathless anticipation.

      But yes, it does make sense why you chose to use the label of passive, there. That said, I still like the finality, the complete ceasing of action, that "was dead" implies. Leaving us with the image of the dog, ending the sentence there, is a good idea, though, and if Matheson had taken the opportunity to build more of a reader rapport for it, I might agree more. However, I felt the important thing was Neville's helplessness, his inability to save the dog. Matheson's phrasing focuses that helplessness. "...the dog died," would still leave us with action from the dog. "...was dead," shuts everything down with a complete lack of action, a void where Neville could do nothing. Obviously this varies from reader to reader.

  3. I agree with you that the "body glue" description was pretty out there. There are concessions to be made for stories where outdated ideas are presented. I mean, I find it interesting that the story went from one in which Neville got invaluable information on the disintegration of dead bodies from “A Negro” to a movie in which A Negro played the main role. Glad to see that the movie updated quite a few things from this classic. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I don’t look at I am Legend the book as a monster story in the strictest sense. It’s a story about loneliness and the story of a man dealing with first an invasion by, and then his own metamorphosis into, The Other. I don’t think this story would work on screen without them overhauling a lot of it, and I think the latest movie version did a pretty good job of that.

    As for the pseudoscience, that didn’t bother me. As I said on my own blog, it seems to me this can be taken as simply Neville’s understanding of what was going on in the world, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be correct. Unlike the Neville in the last movie, Book-Neville didn’t seem to have the skill set needed to be truly accurate scientifically. I chalked it up to the narrator simply being an unreliable one.