For the Love of 'Omega Man'

The sci-fi movie I Am Legend is the fourth film adaptation of a 1954 book by Richard Matheson. Previous iterations include the Charlton Heston cult classic Omega Man.

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TOURE, host:

As Rachel told us, "I am Legend" was the number one movie this weekend. The movie's based on a short novel first published in 1954, and since then, the story's been adapted four times to the big screen.

NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why.

NEDA ULABY: Maybe the idea of a lone human shooting guns at mutants is irresistible to certain filmmakers.

Mr. JOHN ADAMS (Editor, "Wasteland"): If they're like me, they're hoping that someone will finally get it right.

ULABY: John Adams is a fan of post apocalyptic science fiction. He edited an anthology of it called "Wasteland." He says in Richard Matheson's original novella, germ warfare leads to a ghastly worldwide plague.

Mr. ADAMS: It's one of the bleakest novellas I've ever read, for sure. The whole world's become vampires, and there's one the guy left. And it doesn't look good.

(Soundbite of film, "The Last Man on Earth")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GIACOMO ROSSI-STUART (Actor): (as Ben Cortman) Morgan, come out.

ULABY: In the original book, the last man standing fortifies his little house against former friends and neighbors. They come out at night, thirsting for his blood. The first film adaptation from 1964, hews closest to the novel, but it's not close enough for Adams.

Mr. ADAMS: Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for that movie, but then they made so many changes, that he made them take his name off of it.

ULABY: "The Last Man on Earth" stars Vincent Price in what Adam calls an unforgivably hammy performance.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Last Man on Earth")

Mr. VINCENT PRICE (Actor): (As Dr. Robert Morgan) You're freaks. I'm man, the last man.

Mr. ADAMS: The production values are just so terrible. I mean, and it's not a good movie.

ULABY: The remake from 1971 pitted Charlton Heston against the ghoulish survivors. The "Omega Man" is notable now for a then daring interracial romance, and an amazing opening sequence that might be the template for half the world's video games. Heston cruises a deserted downtown Los Angeles in a red Ford Galaxie convertible, picking off mutants with a gun.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. AKIVA GOLDSMAN (Producer, Screenwriter, "I Am Legend"): My first exposure to the story was "Omega Man."

ULABY: Akiva Goldsman produced and wrote the screenplay for "I Am Legend." It's the fourth remake. Goldsman says the appeal runs deeper than its hyper survivalist storyline. He says it's a timeless existential fable.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: Feeling isolated and disconnected and feeling like there's nothing left to hope for, these are real human experiences.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Am Legend")

Mr. SMITH: (As Robert Neville) My name is Robert Neville. I'm a survivor living in New York city. I am broadcasting on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday at mid day when the sun is highest in the sky. If you are out there, if anyone is out there, I can provide food.

ULABY: Updating "I Am Legend" meant more to Goldsman than casting megastar Will Smith and moving the action to New York. Earlier versions were preoccupied by the atomic age. But today's "I Am Legend" has a faith-based message, articulated by one devoutly Christian survivor.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Am Legend")

Unidentified Woman: The world is quieter now. You just have to listen. If you listen, we can hear God's plan.

Mr. SMITH: (As Robert Neville) God's plan?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: We felt that people broke out into two categories in terrible circumstances: those who had hope, and those who didn't have hope. And those with hope had a much better chance of survival.

ULABY: Hope here means faith in God, as well as faith in science, and that's new twist in Matheson's story. Still, Akiva Goldsman says every adaptation of "I Am Legend" reiterates the original's power.

Mr. GOLDSMAN: It all sort of mixes together, I think, over time, and it - the story adds to itself. Times change, movies change, and apparently, "I Am Legend" still keeps getting made.

ULABY: So we're doing for the next remake around 2028.

TOURE: That's NPR's Neda Ulaby reporting. Last week, NPR's film critic Bob Mandello told the BPP he thought "I Am Legend" is a metaphor about terrorism in a post-September 11 world. Isn't everything? Neda ran an analysis by filmmakers - by the filmmakers she talked within our story. You can hear what they thought by going to npr.org.

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