I Am Legend: Comparing All Three Movie Adaptations Based On How Close They Are To The Novel

Look, I know it’s cool to talk about all the films that were made from Philip K. Dick stories, like Blade Runner (both the original and Blade Runner 2049) and Total Recall, but I think we need to talk more about Richard Matheson, because he had a pretty great line of adaptations, too. What Dreams May Come, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, hell, even the movie Real Steel, was based off of one of his more obscure Twilight Zone episodes, called “Steel”. But if we’re going to talk about any Richard Matheson story that had the most influence, then we have to talk about I Am Legend, which has not one, but THREE movie adaptations.

Now, everybody knows about the 2007 version of I Am Legend starring Will Smith, but before that, there was the 1971 film, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and before that, there was the 1964 film, The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. Now, honestly, none of the films have come even close to being as good as the book, but some of the films have at least come close to being like the book. But, which movie did the best job of translating Richard Matheson’s epic vampire story to the big screen? Well, you’re about to find out.

Oh, and major spoilers for both the book and the movies up ahead.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth

(Image credit: American International Pictures)

Compared To The Plot Of I Am Legend

When a book is adapted to film, a lot of fans want to see the movie’s plot to be at least similar to the novel’s. So, which of the three movies is the closest?

The Last Man On Earth’s Plot

Not to be confused with the excellent, now-cancelled comedy, The Last Man on Earth, The Last Man on Earth movie is about a scientist who goes out by day and kills vampires (though they shamble like zombies), and hides in his house at night while the vampires bang on his windows. He befriends a dog (which dies), then befriends a woman, who is really an advanced vampire. And then, more of the advanced vampires kill our hero. The end.

Besides the zombie-like vampires (which may have inspired Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead), the rest of the movie is actually pretty close to the book, even including the backstory with our hero’s daughter, and his vampiric friend trying to kill him. It’s nowhere near as engaging as the novel, but plot-wise, it’s pretty similar.

The Omega Man’s Plot

Charlton Heston plays a scientist who drives around during the day, and fights these albino mutants wearing hoods called “The family” at night. They want to kill him because he represents “science” and they hate science, because they think it transformed them into the mutants they are today. Heston meets some people along the way, fights the mutants, and then dies with his arms spread out like Jesus on the cross. The end. So, really, The Omega Man borrows concepts from the book, but that’s about it.

 I Am Legend’s Plot

An Army virologist (Will Smith) patrols New York as a loner while vampires, known as Dark Seekers, try to kill him. Smith gets a dog, which dies, and then the vampires evolve, and he blows himself and the head vampire up with a grenade. Well, that is, of course, depending on what version of the ending you see. The end.

Winner for Plot:  While I Am Legend does have the fast vampires from the book, The Last Man on Earth is closer, plot-wise, so that wins in this category.

Charlton Heston in The Omega Man

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Compared To The I Am Legend Protagonist

A man named Robert Neville is the sole survivor in the book. So, what’s he like in the movies?

The Last Man On Earth’s Protagonist

Robert Morgan (Morgan?) is a scientist in the movie, and he kills vampires, but Vincent Prince does NOT look like a vampire-killer. He’s more scientist than soldier. Neville in the book is badass, killing vampires with stakes and crucifixes. Morgan does use garlic in the film, though, so that’s similar to the book, at least.

The Omega Man’s Protagonist

This Robert Neville is also a scientist, but he’s one who kicks ass and shoots his rifle out the window. What else would you expect from Charlton Heston?

I Am Legend’s Protagonist

Robert Neville is a virologist in this one. He kicks ass, but he also seems pretty smart, so he’s a nice in-between.

Winner for Protagonist: Well… None of them are really all that close to the practical killer in the novel, but if I had to pick one… then I’d pick The Omega Man, but mostly since he seems the most capable in combat.

Will Smith with a vampire

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Compared To I Am Legend's Vampires

I Am Legend is a vampire story. So, which movie gets that the most right?

The Last Man On Earth’s Vampires

The Last Man on Earth has “vampires”, but they move like zombies. It’s weird.

The Omega Man’s Vampires

The Omega Man has albino mutants wearing cloaks. Definitely not vampires.

I Am Legend’s Vampires

I Am Legend has vampires (or Hemocytes), but they’re not like, traditional vampires, and in the book, they’re traditional vampires. The cross (or the Star of David) hurts them. So, close, but not close enough.

Winner for vampires: Honestly, I think they all lose when compared to the book, but I guess the Darkseekers in I Am Legend are the closest. I suppose.

Charlton Heston in The Omega Man

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Themes Compared To I Am Legend

Themes of what isolation does to a person, and the concept of never giving up hope are all themes in I Am Legend. So, which film gets closest to those themes?

The Last Man On Earth’s Themes

This movie does get into the concept of how loneliness changes a person, but it’s not nearly as effective as it is in the book.

The Omega Man’s Themes

The idea of feeling the pressures of isolation actually weigh heavily on this version of the story, and the actions of Heston’s character are directly connected to his desire to not be alone.

I Am Legend’s Themes

I Am Legend tries to do the same thing as The Omega Man when it comes to showcasing the effects of loneliness. But it’s not as effective as The Omega Man, which is surprising, since I think Will Smith is a much better actor than Charlton Heston, so it must be the script’s fault.

Winner for Themes: Surprisingly, The Omega Man captures the themes of the book the best, even if it is the silliest of the three films.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth

(Image credit: American International Pictures)

Compared To The Ending Of I Am Legend

In the end of the book, our hero is now feared by the vampires, but he’s outnumbered. So, he takes a pill to kill himself, and thinks, amusingly, about how he has become a legend himself since, as the last man on earth, he has become almost mythical, hence the title.

The Last Man On Earth’s Ending

The end of The Last Man on Earth sees the evolved vampires (though, they’re hardly superpowered), arriving to kill Neville, er, I mean Morgan, because they see him as a threat. He dies very un-heroically, but oh, well. At least it’s kind of similar to the book. Still, he definitely doesn’t seem legendary.

The Omega Man’s Ending

Neville fights the head of the family, and he gets betrayed by somebody he trusted. He gets speared, and then dies in a fountain. Um… okay.

I Am Legend’s Ending

Neville blows himself and the head vampire up with a grenade, but in doing so, he has given the survivors a cure, which means there is hope for the future. Um… okay again?

Winner for The Ending: NONE of the movies have the amazing ending of the book, but, by default, I guess I have to give it to The Last Man on Earth, which really sucks because that ending is not good, but it’s the closet to the novel.

The Overall Winner: Surprisingly, I have a tie between The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man (Also, how ironic is it that the one actually CALLED I Am Legend is the least like the book?). Still, The Last Man on Earth actually has vampires (I guess), so I guess I deem that one the winner.

But what have you think? Have you seen all three films? For news on movies worth streaming for when you feel like the living dead, or upcoming horror movies, make sure to swing by here often.

Rich Knight
Content Producer

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.