My good friend Ryan has been razzing me for sometime over my absolute hatred of the ending I Am Legend (the book, not the movie). In the comments of a recent post where I named I Am Legend, the worst read of 2007 he wrote:
“I would speculate that this novelette written over 50 years ago, holds up better than 95% of the genre written in its time…. You said yourself that you enjoyed the read, but hated the ending. I think you really need to revisit the story. This is speculative fiction at its finest.”
Well, I don't think it’s bad speculative fiction though I don’t know if it’s the finest example that speculative fiction has to offer. It is, however, a very good one.
In any case, I’m going to detail my problem with the ending of the book and contrast it with the ending of the movie and explain why I listed it as the worst read last year.
Warning: Spoilers for both the book and the movie follow.
The general plot of the book centers on a character named Robert Neville who is the last human on the planet. The rest of humanity has been afflicted by a virus that has changed them all into vampire/zombie creatures. Neville spends his nights inside his vampire-proof house while the undead creatures roam around his house attempting to find a way in. During the day scavenges for supplies, repairs damage to his house, and looks for any other human survivors.
During the course of the novel we learn about Neville and start to care about him. He’s lost a wife and a child to this virus, hasn’t had any human contact for years, and at night tries to drown out the sounds of the vampire/zombie creatures that lurk outside.
One of the things he does to pass the time is hunt for these creatures during daylight hours. Unlike the movie, these creatures are languid and passive during the day so Neville never encounters a problem when he goes into homes or buildings to kill them with a stake through the heart. During the course of the novel he racks up an impressive kill count.
Then after an afternoon of creature killing, he spots a woman walking through a field in broad daylight. He chases her down and takes her back to his place. Later we find out that this woman is an anvanced type of vampire creature sent to spy on him. Through their own scientific inquiries, some of these vampires have found a way to be active and alive during daylight hours and are starting a new society and Neville is a threat to that society.
One night they arrive at his place, break down the door and take him captive. At the end of the book, Neville sits in prison and learns that he’s going to be executed. However, the vampire creature that was sent to spy on him takes pity and gives him some pills to end his life. He looks out the window at a street full of vampire/zombie creates. They are first are startled when they see him then stare at him silently.
And this is how the book ends:
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in pain.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.
Is that a great ending or what? Our hero turns out to be the bad guy in this new world. Because he’s killed so many of these vampire creatures, he’s going to be the monster that these new creatures tell their children stories about. Neville is going to be the creature that gives vampire children nightmares. His legend is going to be one of death and terror.
Sure, it’s a creative ending and it’s not the imagination of Richard Matheson I have a problem with. The reason I hated the ending is because he took a character I somewhat cared about and gave him an ignominious death.
Death by suicide just as he realizes how these vampire/zombie creatures view him? Oh, please. That’ s no way for our hero or a monstrous “legend” to go. What’s the point in creating a character that the reader just might care about only to have him go out with a whimper? That’s what I call a big letdown.
At least in the movie when Neville dies, he dies for a cause and there’s a hope – albeit a small one – that humanity might continue and that these creatures might be turned back into humans. And the Neville character takes out as many of the creatures as he can when he dies in a fiery explosion. Now that’s the way to make an exit and the way the book should have ended as well.