Books and films share an interesting and symbiotic relationship whereas many books go on to become movies and on occasion a movie inspires a book or book series. There are a great number of us who only know the “story” because we saw the movie. I can attest that I have read only one chapter of Twilight and know the entire story through forced viewership in my home. The Lord of the Rings series is classic literature, but even a smart guy like me struggled with J.R.R Tolkien’s writing…so gratefully there was a movie series that allows me to pretend I read it.
In the horror genre you have people who love the books, the people who love the movies, and those that love both, with the last group perhaps the smallest of the categories. And while I fall into the last of these I also believe that most “horror” stories get merc’d when they hit the screen. The best movies tend to be unique screenplays and not based on novels. There are of course a few exceptions. Misery comes to mind as a book to film that had an excellent translation.
There isn’t a lot of crossover in horror between the novelists and the film makers. The bridge isn’t usually the “people” but the story itself. By that I mean novelists tend to write novels, screenwriters stick with screenplays and directors direct films. So a list of the “Horror Greats” also tends to separate them into Those who write and Those who make movies. Seldom do we see one individual doing both. Look for example to this list of greats: King, Lovecraft, Campbell, Koontz, Carpenter, Craven, Romero and Rami just to name a few. These “greats” are known for their work in their particular medium (film or book) and at best you get two of the three possibilities (story, screenplay or movie) and almost never do you get all three.
There is one very influential writer who has crossed over and back again and back again. This author’s work has had a huge impact on the genre, has helped launch careers, and has a great number of viewers who have enjoyed his stories on film without ever knowing the person behind the work.
I am speaking of Richard Matheson. My discovery that Matheson was a novelist happened several years ago while I was on business in London. I went into a book store and was browsing the horror selection when I happened upon “I Am Legend.” I loved the Omega Man, but I had only a vague recollection that it it was based on a novel. So I bought it and several other Matheson’s books that day. I was, at the time, a self-proclaimed lover of all things horror. As I researched I was both surprised and a little embarrassed that Matheson had done so much in the genre, had influenced me so greatly, and yet I was so unaware of all he had accomplished.
Matheson’s list of credits is impressive. Although he refused to label himself a “horror” guy, much of his work is in the genre. Now I am not a literary critic, and Mr. Matheson is a fine writer, but after reading all of his works I feel pretty strongly that his work on film holds up much better than on the page. They are good stories, well written, but not the “best” horror fiction I have ever read…but some of the best stories I have seen on film. His influence and involvement in the horror/fantasy/sci-fi industry is, in my opinion, significant and yet prior to the last remake of I Am Legend I would bet many people didn’t even know his name. Let’s take a quick tour of Mr. Matheson’s impact on the industry and see if you agree.
Matheson’s hallmark was his work on the Twilight Zone. He penned fourteen episodes of the iconic series in addition to writing many of Rod Serling’s opening and closing monologues. The impact of this series was significant and credit for that must, in part, go to Matheson’s screen writing. Circle of Fear was another “Twilight Zone” type series – little known but great stuff.
If that was all he had we might never have seen beyond Serling’s own genius or have reason to mention Matheson but as a footnote. But of course there is so much more to his credit. Most of us now realize that he wrote, I Am Legend, a book that has seen three…yes three…film versions: The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man with Charleston Heston and I Am Legend with Will Smith. That’s a lot of adaptations and evidence that even if not the best written story, it holds something that we all like – and attracts big stars (of their time) for the leading role. This 1954 novel introduced us to the apocalypse via “disease” and was the inspiration for the king of all zombie films, Night of the Living Dead…but wait there’s more…
Perhaps Spielberg would have been great no matter the start of his career. The facts, however, are that Matheson both directly and indirectly helped launch that career. Follow me on this one. The popularity of the Twilight Zone led to the production opportunity for Serling’s Night Gallery. Mr. Spielberg made his directorial debut on the set of the Night Gallery directing the short, The Eyes. Later he directed his first full length film, Duel, which is a Richard Matheson story and that led to the opportunity to direct Jaws.
Matheson has almost as many stories to film as Stephen King, even though he lacks the name recognition. When a King story becomes a movie it’s promoted almost exclusively on the fact that it is a Stephen King story. Matheson’s work is seldom marketed in this manner, but see how many of his stories below you’ve watched in theaters or on DVD or that inspired other films.
The Box with Cameron Diaz – A Matheson story titled “Button, Button.”
Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon – From the book of the same name
What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr
I Am Legend
Real Steel with Hugh Jackman
Somewhere in Time
The Legend of Hell House
The Incredible Shrinking Man
Star Trek (the original series) The Enemy Within hailed as the “greatest” episodes
Jaws 3D – He wrote part of the screenplay…okay that may have been a poor example
Richard Matheson’s influence on writers includes a fairly impressive list. Stephen King wrote “Cell” as a tribute, Anne Rice credits his, “A dress of white silk” as her inspiration for her vampire series. Film maker Chris Carter (The X Files) named a character in the series after Matheson as a tribute and Tim Burton lists The Omega Man as one of his favorite films.
As a horror writer, I was influenced by the usual suspects – Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, King, Koontz and Ramsey Campbell but if I was to point to my greatest influence it would be Richard Matheson – an influential writer I never knew. I have often credited King as my inspiration to write horror and yet so often the stories that made me want to tell my own stories were written by Richard Matheson. His impact on my work is clear. I like horror stories with a twist, I prefer to describe my characters through their internal and external dialog, I like a quick moving story, and I like endings that leave you to your own imagination. You and Me, Against the World is my own version of I Am Legend, but I think the single story I have written that sums up my tribute to Matheson best is one I called The Blue Vase although perhaps they all have a bit of Matheson’s Twilight Zone/Circle of Fear in them.