Horror of the Moment: Adapting The Mist and I Am Legend
Like any narrative art form, film often serves as a prism for the time and place in which it has been created. In a relatively small percentage of movies this manifests on a surface level, with current events defining what stories are told. But look deeper and you’ll find that societal-level emotion defines how stories are told, regardless of the subject matter, and it’s this permeation of cultural consciousness that makes cinematic adaptations so fascinating. Sure, there is a thrill to be had from seeing your favorite novel brought to life, and it can be fun to argue about whether the book or the movie was better and how you can’t believe that the filmmakers chose to leave out that plotline, but more often than not this sort of discussion ignores a significant value of adaptations: any reworking, especially of a piece that originated more than a few years previously, is inherently a recontextualization (whether intentionally or not). The choice of when and where to diverge from the source material is not only revealing of the differences between the mediums, but of whatever cultural anxieties are most pervasive and ingrained at the point of both the film’s creation and initial consumption — anxieties that are exacerbated when the genre of the adaptation in question falls under the broad umbrella of horror.
Return, if you can, to the year 2007 — the midst of a flashpoint during the back half of the aughts where it felt as though America was hurtling towards an apocalypse of its own making. By the fall of that year, the United States had been mired in the Iraq War for nearly five years, despite President George W. Bush’s infamous declaration in May of 2003 that major combat operations in the region had ended and America had “prevailed” in the conflict. The southern part of the United States was still reeling from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005 and the government’s catastrophic failure to prepare and respond appropriately. Though the effects wouldn’t be fully realized until the following year, the housing bubble had begun to burst, sparking a global financial crisis and leading to the worst American economic downturn since the Great Depression. Widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, both foreign and domestic, led to political upheaval in both 2006 (the Democratic party gaining control of both chambers of Congress) and 2008 (the election of President Barack Obama), but the ripple effects of the previous decade stymied significant policy progress and helped calcify a political polarization that continues — seemingly unabated — to this day.
Regarded by many as a highwater mark for 20th century filmmaking, it’s easy to place many of the most acclaimed and widely recognized American films of 2007 within the context of the agitation occurring outside the multiplex. The nihilism of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (the eventual winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture), the searing indictment of early capitalism in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the obsession and terror of David Fincher’s Zodiac, and the immorality of corporate America in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton all speak to the country’s growing fear, frustration, and sense of futility. Though these works may stand among the great cinematic achievements of the past twenty years (at least for a certain faction of the critical community), the last two months of 2007 also brought a pair of films connected by their subject matter and the form of their respective inspirations. The contrasting approaches to adaptation taken by Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend and Frank Darabont’s The Mist (both are based on apocalyptic horror novellas), particularly in how each film radically revises the ending of its source material, reveal two very different responses to the historical moment in which they were conceived.
For a relatively slight, 60-plus-year-old volume, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend has had an outsized influence on the genre it helped birth. Published in 1954, the novella provides early examples of the speculative interplay between viral diseases, vampires, and zombies that have since become standard tropes in horror and apocalyptic fiction. As a modern-day reader, I Am Legend is nothing if not familiar, but Matheson’s stripped-down style is haunting and evocative — more than anything, the book is a story of crippling loneliness. The prospect of being the last human left on earth is more frightening than almost any monster imaginable, somehow made even worse by the sliver of hope and ingrained survival instincts that force a person to keep fighting for the prospect of a reversal that will likely never come.
The story follows Robert Neville, a blue-collar worker who finds himself the lone survivor of a virulent plague that has wiped out most of humanity as he knew it. The rest of the population is either dead or undead, turned into what Matheson refers to as vampires — though under our contemporary framework of horror iconography, these creatures are more akin to some hybrid of the vampiric (blood-sucking, nocturnal, vulnerable to stakes, crosses, and garlic, strangely eroticized) and the zombified (born of death and disease, more instinctual than intelligent, pack hunters). Through flashbacks, we know that his family was claimed by the virus, but an unexplained immunity (ascribed in passing to a run-in with a bat) has left Neville to spend his nights trying to sleep while the diseased gather outside his house to taunt him and his days drinking and hunting down the sleeping vampires. In between fits of rage and depression, Neville comes to believe that there must be a rational explanation for the contagion, and, despite his lack of scientific knowledge, sets out to find both the source of the disease and the cure.
Unfortunately, he’s unable to learn much more than (a) how to identify infection in the blood and (b) how to more efficiently slaughter the infected — neither of which serve as a long-term solution. Neville isn’t the most likeable protagonist, nor does he seem particularly competent, but you can’t help but feel for him; Matheson capitalizes on the reader’s empathy, determined to drive home the notion that Neville’s world has devolved into the worst form of purgatory. Nowhere is this more on display than during a long stretch of near the middle of the novella in which our protagonist learns that there is at least one other survivor: a traumatized dog, taken to scavenging during the day and retreating to his hiding place at night to avoid the monsters. My copy of the book is 227 pages, and Matheson spends a full 23 of them on Neville’s excruciatingly patient efforts to earn the dog’s trust, a successful endeavor rewarded with the story’s most devastating line, soul-crushing in its brevity and bluntness: “In a week, the dog was dead.” The passing of that poor animal marks the final breaking of Neville’s spirit, the extinguishing of the last spark of hope he may have had — until, three years later, he comes across what appears to be another survivor…
2007 wasn’t the first time I Am Legend made its way to the big screen — it was previously adapted in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and co-written by Matheson under the pen name Logan Swanson, and in 1971 as The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. The property lay dormant until the mid-90s, when a new version was set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be helmed by Ridley Scott, but the project was soon scrapped. After multiple false starts in the early 2000s involving directors Michael Bay and Guillermo Del Toro, the adaptation finally made it across the finish line thanks to Francis Lawrence and star Will Smith and was released on December 14 2007 to mild praise and a final box office gross of $256 million domestic / $585 million worldwide from a reported $150 million budget.
Despite being the first adaptation of I Am Legend to share a title with the novella, the film takes its fair share of liberties: the contours of the original story are there, but the details often differ significantly. In Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay, Robert Neville (Smith) is now a military scientist specializing in infectious diseases — his wife and daughter died in a helicopter accident during the evacuation of New York City, where he is now the sole survivor of a lethal outbreak of a virus that, in a cruel twist of fate, began as a cure for cancer. Those the disease didn’t kill have become nocturnal creatures of sub-human intelligence, vulnerable to sunlight but the rulers of Manhattan once night falls. Neville has a constant companion in his German Shepard, Sam, with whom he spends the daylit hours roaming the starkly empty streets of New York. As a virologist, the film’s Neville is much better positioned than his literary counterpart to try to solve the contagion’s mysteries, and it becomes clear that is indeed the mission that drives him; we see that he’s devoted countless hours to testing potential cures (based on his own blood) on rats and, when he can catch them, the island’s resident zombies. Overall he seems to be coping better than the book’s Neville, more than likely due to the presence of his canine confidante — which makes it all the more heartbreaking when, as in the novella, his dog becomes infected and has to be put down. As tragic as this sequence is, the film leaves little time to linger with the trauma, as Neville’s attempt at suicide-by-monster is interrupted by another survivor and the prospect of a last bastion of humanity materializes…
It would be easy for The Mist to get lost in the shuffle of Stephen King’s immense oeuvre. The novella was first published in 1980 as part of the non-King-specific horror anthology Dark Forces (which, coincidentally, also included “When There’s a Will,” a story by Matheson), then later reprinted in 1985 as the opener to King’s own short story collection Skeleton Crew. There was no standalone edition available until 2007, making it unlikely that the story would garner the same sort of name recognition needed to truly occupy the public consciousness the way other King works have.
But The Mist has stood the test of time, in no small part due to the brilliant simplicity of its premise and the combination of Lovecraftian terror and societal crumbling that drives the narrative forward. Taking place — as so many King plots do — in a small Maine town, the novella opens with a mid-summer thunderstorm that wreaks havoc on the homes in the area overnight, including that of artist David Drayton. The next day, with trees down, the power out, and his family low on household necessities, Drayton heads into town with his son Billy and neighbor Brent Norton, leaving his wife Steff at home to start taking care of the damage. An ominous fog has been rolling in, but it isn’t until they reach the crowded grocery store that its true nature becomes apparent — this isn’t an ordinary meteorological phenomenon, but a harbinger of and cover for something otherworldly and sinister.
The small-town supermarket becomes the setting for the majority of the story’s action, and it functions as a microcosm of the society it serves. Seemingly every type of denizen is represented, from the blue-collar workers to the out-of-towners to the overly religious busybody whose zealotry feels less and less harmless by the minute. Factions solidify once the creatures lurking in the mist violently reveal themselves: some stubbornly choose to ignore the evidence before them, others fall prey to ravings about the end of days, several use the supermarket’s beer supply to try to forget what they’ve seen. Drayton, in his desire to just keep his son safe and make it back to his wife, finds himself the reluctant leader of the rational-minded few who have managed to keep their wits about them in a time of crisis. An incursion by the monsters and an ill-fated trip to the next-door pharmacy convince Drayton and his band that the prospect of making it to a vehicle is worth the risk, but their plan is nearly foiled by Mrs. Carmody — the aforementioned zealot — and her followers. The doomsayers are hell-bent on human sacrifice to stave off the impending apocalypse, but Drayton and company escape amidst casualties on both sides. For the moment safe in Drayton’s Scout SUV, the survivors drive out into the mist, leaving the supermarket behind…
By 2007, Frank Darabont had earned himself a reputation as a Stephen King-whisperer, having directed both 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption and 1999’s The Green Mile to Best Picture nominations in their respective years. Each film also earned Darabont an Adapted Screenplay nomination for his work bringing the King stories to the big screen, and after the failure of his non-King follow-up, The Majestic, he decided to return to familiar territory. Turns out Darabont had wanted to write and direct an adaptation of The Mist for nearly twenty years, and had considered making that his feature directorial debut instead of Shawshank. It’s not often that a missed opportunity circles back around, but nearly two decades later Darabont was able to write and direct the one that got away.
The film opened on November 21, 2007 to mixed reviews, but was a modest financial success, recouping $25 million domestic / $57 million worldwide from a relatively small $13 million budget. Unlike I Am Legend, the screenplay hews closely to King’s original story, lifting dialogue passages whole-cloth and reconfiguring the story beats to a minimal degree — and usually for the better. King spends almost 30 pages at the Drayton house to lead off, which Darabont condenses to five minutes, propelling the film towards the primary location as quickly and efficiently as possible. An adulterous encounter between Drayton (Thomas Jane) and schoolteacher Amanda (Laurie Holden) is nixed and sequences of terror are extended. Perhaps most crucially, the character of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) is fleshed out and held up as the primary antagonist of the film as opposed to being mostly relegated to one of many background concerns that hinder Drayton’s attempts at maintaining order. The film rightfully understands that people who have nothing left to lose are just as dangerous as the unknowable creatures lurking outside, making the final confrontation with Carmody and her gathered masses feel inevitable. This enriches a standoff that ultimately ends the same way it does in the novella: Carmody is dead, a handful of survivors have made it to Drayton’s car, and they set off into the unknown…
As films, neither I Am Legend nor The Mist are entirely successful. Despite the difference in budget, The Mist is the more visually appealing of the two, with Rohn Schmidt’s handheld cinematography reinforcing the claustrophobia of the setting and the encroaching evil just barely being held at bay; there’s a blandness to Andrew Lesnie’s work on Legend that fails to make the most of the haunting vistas of an empty New York City. Neither’s digital effects have aged particularly well, but Legend’s zombies looked outdated in 2007 and have only gotten worse in the intervening years. Much of this is attributable to the attempt to graft a fairly rote action movie onto what is ultimately a human story tale of existential dread — The Mist’s creatures aren’t much better, but because the filmmakers are clearly taking their inspiration from the B movie horror of yesteryear, the at times laughable special effects feel like part of the endeavor’s charm. What Legend does have going for it is Will Smith: one of the last true movie stars, Smith spends nearly the entire film acting opposite department store mannequins, CGI’d tennis balls, and a dog, but remains compulsively watchable and manages to tap into the well of loneliness at the heart of Matheson’s story — we truly believe he’s the last man on Earth. For better or for worse, no one in The Mist has that kind of star wattage and the lack of an actor with that level of easy naturalism hampers the film at times.
But, as laid out at the beginning of this piece, there is a key element that both of these adaptations share: the finale of each film adaptation departs radically from the ending of its respective novella, decisions that makes clear how the films are both defined by and react to the social environment into which they are born.
In Matheson’s novella, the survivor Neville encounters and brings into his home turns out to be a spy — as it turns out, some of the infected have developed a method to live with their disease and are attempting to build a new society from the ashes of the old. They view Neville, understandably, as a criminal of the worst kind, a serial killer murdering their brethren by the score each day as they lay helplessly asleep. Neville has the opportunity to flee the city, but mistakenly thinks that he will survive the new order’s judgment; instead, he is imprisoned and scheduled for public execution. As he sits and waits for his contraband suicide pills to take effect, he comes to the realization that he cannot blame the vampires for their actions given how many of their friends and family he has killed — just as their kind were once the stuff of fearful legends, so he will be to the new inheritors of the earth.
The survivor in the film version of I Am Legend turns out to be exactly who she says she is — a human woman, Anna, traveling with her son Ethan to an enclave in Vermont that she believes exists. Neville is skeptical of the veracity of such a claim, but before there can be much discussion of the matter, the three are attacked by a final wave of monsters. As they barricade themselves in Neville’s laboratory, he realizes that his last attempt to synthesize a cure was successful and sacrifices himself to wipe out the approaching creatures and give Anna and Ethan a chance to make their way to Vermont. The pair reach the survivors’ enclave, cure in hand, and Neville’s legend becomes one of heroism instead of villainy.
The two versions of The Mist, on the other hand, exemplify a 180-degree difference in adaptation. In the novella, the survivors drive into the night, ensconced in fog and maintaining a tenuous protection from the monsters. Finding shelter in a hotel for the night, Drayton turns on a radio and, through the static, hears what to him sounds like a single word: “Hartford.” Perhaps it was just his imagination, but it gives them hope and the will to carry on, into the unknown. This ending is ambiguous, but upbeat — two adjectives that cannot describe the final scenes of the film. In the adaptation, the survivors drive as far as they can, with no sign of hope anywhere to be found. When they eventually run out of gas, they, as a group, determine that they would do anything to avoid death by the creatures of the mist. Drayton has a gun and four bullets he selflessly uses to end it for his four companions — including his son, who horribly wakes from his slumber just in time to see his father pull the trigger. With no ammunition left, Drayton is left alone to live with his actions, no matter how altruistic they seemed in the moment. But as he screams and begs for a beast to come and claim him, the mist starts to clear and in rolls the military, armed to the teeth and shuttling those they’ve saved. If Drayton had waited five minutes, his son would still be alive — there’s nothing he can do but fall to his knees and scream.
A film’s ending is critical to its success, both in terms of artistry and audience response — it’s what we leave the theatre with, the lasting images that color our perception of what has come before. When the film is an adaptation, ensuring the right ending becomes even more fraught: the filmmakers have to walk a thin line between doing what’s best for the new medium and not completely alienating the built-in audience comprised of the source material’s fans. On the page, Matheson’s and King’s endings both worked, so why the dramatic shakeups?
The answer lies not in how they were adapted, but when. As both of these American movies are being written, produced, and released, the United States is teetering on the precipice of disaster, mired in a seemingly unending war abroad and hurtling towards an economic collapse the likes of which most citizens have never seen. That we’d see multiple apocalyptic films in the same year should come as no surprise — the feeling in the air for domestic moviegoers was one of distinct anxiety and pessimism. While it’s true that the movies are frequently a form of escape from the outside world, they just as often serve as reinforcement that you, the audience, are not alone in feeling this way. Film can serve as confirmation that your current perception of the world is a valid one, perhaps even spurring you to action when you don’t like what you see. Despite the glamour of Hollywood, on a macro level most filmmakers exist in the same world as you or I. They are susceptible to the same societal fear, anger, and need, and have to find a way to cope with it the same as anyone else. For many, this means imbuing their art with the swirling cultural undercurrents of the moment, whether consciously or not.
The Mist and I Am Legend serve as perfect examples of this concept of adaptation precisely because of how overt their changes are — if a film’s ending has outsized influence on how an audience member feels walking out of the theatre, then it provides the greatest single opportunity for a filmmaker to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. Focusing only on the on-screen products and ignoring any behind-the-scenes trivia, it’s easy to theorize what these two films had to say about the state of the country circa 2006-07. I Am Legend thinks that America needs to be reassured, to be reminded that — no matter how bad things get — we are still the heroes, out there getting the job done and, if necessary, sacrificing ourselves for a better tomorrow. The Mist, on the other hand, believes that Americans are doubting their status as the champion of truth and justice and need a shock to the system to confirm for them that the time for complacency is over and if they want things to get better they’re going to have to fight for it — because the world is unforgiving.
Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. Compare this interview with Yahoo! Movies in which Darabont explains his approach to adapting The Mist:
“At that time, I was feeling a little bit pissed off at the world. There’s definitely a political element to that movie, which you don’t have to look too hard to see. Though it’s not a political movie, it’s in many ways a very political movie. I was feeling a little angry at the world, and at our country at that time, so it felt like a valid way to end a movie. It doesn’t always have to be a happy ending. It shouldn’t always be a happy ending.”
With this interview for Screen Rant, where Lawrence describes his regrets from the production of I Am Legend:
“Looking back at it now, I think that we could have just done basically the story of the novella straight up…They would have accepted the nihilistic ending, they would have accepted vampires instead of people with infections. We could have literally made the book, which I would have been much happier with, but you know when you're spending that much money you're panicking that you're making this weird little kind of art film about a guy alone with a dog in New York and you're trying to you know sort of create that spectacle.”
For both directors, it was clear that what the country needed at that particular moment in its history was a gut-punch, a wake-up call about the damage being done at home and overseas. Neither I Am Legend nor The Mist is a movie about war, or the impending housing crisis, or government failures (though both films depict plenty of those), but both filmmakers felt the need to capture the essence of the topics that permeated the nation’s daily existence. Darabont followed through on his inclinations, delivering one of cinema’s most viscerally upsetting endings, but Lawrence and his writers pulled back, providing an upbeat ending that may seem unearned — an unsurprising sugarcoating for a studio blockbuster.
But here is where it should be noted that the original ending Lawrence filmed was much more in keeping with the novella’s. Neville doesn’t die, but he learns that the beings he’d been testing his cures on were much more sentient than he realized when they break into his home — not to kill him, but to save his latest subject. And while that ending may, with the benefit of hindsight, play better for many (including the director himself), Lawrence notes that the creative team “tested it twice and it got wildly rejected, wildly rejected, which is why we came out with the other one.” Even though Lawrence may have initially had his finger on the same societal pulse as Darabont, he learned and adapted his film for the times just the same. Though some may lambast it as a failure of nerve, in context it reads more as a victory of empathy. The stories we tell each other are our lifeblood, an inherent part of the human condition, and we crave both familiarity and variety — in periods of great unrest sometimes we need to be shaken out of our complacency, and other times we just need to be comforted. Every generation it falls to a set of storytellers to decipher these desires and weave new tales or reframe old ones, ensuring that we have the tools we need to try to make some sense of the moments in which we live.