Before the Devil Knows You're Undead: Why ‘I Am Legend’ Should've Starred Philip Seymour Hoffman

Photo: Photo Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
and Universal

Like many New Yorkers, we've spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why I Am Legend — the disappointing (though colossally successful) postapocalyptic Will Smith flick about a depopulated, zombie-infested Manhattan — wasn't the brilliant movie we'd expected. Was it the implausible and unsatisfying ending? The CGI "dark seekers" who were really some kind of watered-down mix of vampires and zombies? (Note to director Francis Lawrence: The undead and the living dead should always be totally separate entities.) The fact that Legally Blonde: The Musical is still running in 2009 (making a worldwide plague seem not all that undeserved)? Or — spoiler alert! — that we were way sadder about some dog biting the big one than Smith's sweet tot of a daughter? No. Well, yes, but no.

After going back to the source, Richard Matheson's 1954 book of the same name, we think we've finally figured it out. The titular legend was not a muscular, methodical, clean-cut Fresh Prince, but a whiskey-swilling, pipe-smoking, schlumpy … Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Consider this passage:

It was a bigger, more relaxed Neville that gazed out across the wide field on the other side of the boulevard. An evenly paced hermit life had increased his weight to 230 pounds. His face was full, his body broad and muscular underneath the loose-fitting denim he wore. He had long before given up shaving. Only rarely did he crop his thick blond beard, so that it remained two to three inches from his skin. His hair was thinning and was long and straggly. Set in the deep tan of his face, his blue eyes were calm and unexcitable.

Or this one:

He swallowed the whole glassful at once, head thrown back, whiskey running out the edges of his mouth. 'I'm an animal!' he exulted. 'I'm a dumb, stupid animal and I'm going to drink!' … He stayed drunk for two days and planned on staying drunk till the end of time or the world's whiskey supply, whichever came first.

We feel another remake coming on … I Am Gust Avrakotos, anyone? —Kelly Marages