Why HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ Could Be a Game-Changing Adaptation
A brief look at HBO's highly anticipated undead series in the wake of past games-to-film.
If we’ve learned anything from the first two decades of the 21st century, it should be how to survive the apocalypse, or more specifically, the zombie apocalypse. We all know zombie fiction has been in oversupply for quite a while. Our world has also been surviving three years of its own non-fictional outbreak. So you may have heard that HBO is about to release a new post-apocalyptic zombie drama based on a video game of the same name and wondered, Why? Do we really need more undead walking? 🧟♂️
I think the answer is yes. We need this one. Ask almost any gamer worth their salt, and they’ll tell you The Last of Us is one of the most beautiful and haunting stories of our time. As a gamer myself, I’m thrilled for my non-gamer friends to experience it through a more accessible medium. The Last of Us is the story of an extraordinary girl and the lost soul charged to deliver her—the challenges they face in a broken world where all kinds of infected monsters roam, including the monsters within themselves. It handles themes of hope, grief, survival, acceptance, tolerance, companionship and transformation in ways that made it such groundbreaking fiction in a game. I believe that narrative needs a broader audience now more than ever.
When Naughty Dog announced they’d be turning their hit Playstation game 🎮 into a TV show, I could barely contain my excitement. It came in 2020, a year most of us would like to forget. But for me, it was a glimmer of hope in our pandemic world… ironically about a story set in a post-apocalyptic, post-pandemic world. After what has felt like an eternal wait, the series is finally upon us. It premieres on January 15, 2023. And I think there are several reasons to be as excited about this as many fans are.
The Art of the Adaptation
First of all, it’s HBO. Not only is the network known for top-quality content, but they also made a very smart move for this adaptation: they hired acclaimed writer Craig Mazin. Craig recently crushed it with the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, a drama that also deals with apocalyptic concerns. And he’s a self-proclaimed fan of the game. This is important because this adaptation also has Neil Druckmann on board, writer and director of the video game. No one knows this story better than Neil, and he’ll want to ensure that his baby enters this new medium with the best script possible.
Of course, not everyone is as excited. Adaptations of popular franchises always come with skepticism and often disapproval—especially from die-hard fans. There is a reason for the saying, “the book is better than the movie.” It usually is. And for video game adaptations, this couldn’t be more true. If you look at the Rotten Tomato audience scores for games turned into movies, the numbers speak for themselves. A few examples: Assassin’s Creed (2016), starring Michael Fassbender, audience score 42%. Hitman - Agent 47 (2015), audience score 40%, Max Payne (2008) starring Mark Wahlberg, audience score 29%. Ouch. And the critic scores are even worse.
A recent outlier is Uncharted, an adventure movie based on the popular Playstation-only video game franchise (also by Naughty Dog… which could be important here). Critics didn’t love it. But audiences did. It has a score of 90%. How will The Last of Us compare? Can it charm both the audience and the critics? And what makes a good video game adaptation? Should the cast look the same? Should they reinterpret their characters? What about the art direction of the world? Since films and games are both visual, should the scenes be filmed as reproductions of the same moments from the game? How similar should the dialog be?
When HBO announced the main cast for the series, fans of the game had mixed feelings. From the little we’ve seen of Pedro Pascal as Joel, he seems to be doing a fantastic job. But there was a lot of chatter about how he doesn’t look like Joel from the game.
Consider that gamers spend hundreds of hours with playable characters, often dwarfing the time fans watch characters in TV and film. So it makes a lot of sense that gamers would be picky about the look and tone of their favorite game characters depicted on film. But maybe HBO understands that a healthy amount of interpretation and newness is exactly what this adaptation needs. Pascal certainly seems to think so. Unlike Craig Mazin, he has never played the game (according to him, he lacked the skill to do so—oh boy) and has wanted to keep a healthy distance from it so he wouldn’t be tempted to imitate Joel. Whether that was a good strategy shall be seen.
And what about Ellie? We all know the video game character looks like Elliot Page‘s little sister. But according to Naughty Dog, that was a complete coincidence. Back in 2013, when the first game was released, Elliot (at that time, Ellen) was not happy about the resemblance, and Naughty Dog even changed Ellie’s look to be younger. For the HBO adaptation, they’ve made another bold choice. Game of Thrones fans might remember Bella Ramsey as noblewoman (or rather noblegirl) Lyanna Mormont, and her performance was pretty badass.
The Last of Us is her biggest role to date. Lyanna and Ellie are both headstrong, brave, and fiery young women. But Ellie also has a sharp wit that I’m curious to see interpreted by Ramsey.
The world of a video game can be anything the game designers dream up. And while modern visual effects have made that more and more true for film and tv, there’s a cost to having too many computer-generated settings in a show or movie. Realism can get overshadowed by the dazzle. The Last of Us relies on its grounded storytelling so that its occasional stunning set pieces can wow us. Still, there are settings in the game that the fans will be waiting to see. Here are five of my favorites (without spoiling newcomers on why these are so magical). I hope other fans will agree:
The University of Colorado
The Abandoned Carousel - DLC
The Hotel Grand
When Game of Thrones was nearing the end of its first season, fans of the novels 📘 couldn’t wait for their friends who had not read them to experience a key scene from the book. It was one of the most shocking moments in TV history. And it happened again at the infamous Red Wedding of Season 3. The show had plenty of differences from the books, especially in later seasons when there were no more books to take from (let’s not talk about the zombie they put in a backpack 🎒. Was it in a backpack? I remember it in a backpack). But the scenes where the books and the series aligned were essential to retaining the story’s spirit.
I expect this will be true for The Last of Us. I’m eager to see new scenes I didn’t experience in the game. If you told me they existed in some secret DLC, I would pop the disc in now to play it. But like those Song of Ice and Fire fans peeping at their friends from the corner of their eyes 👀 as they experienced vital scenes from the books, I can hardly wait for general audiences to enjoy some of the game’s most iconic moments. So as not to spoil, here are some teaser images I’ll be looking out for:
Just Hanging Around
Bitten (From the DLC)
The Opening Outbreak
Sam and Henry
There are dozens more, and I expect we’ll see many of them, even if we don’t get all our favorites.
If HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation is as good and timely as I think it will be, it could ring in a new era—one in which video game adaptations are treated more seriously by both studios and audiences. The Last of Us was a pioneer of video game storytelling. Could this series do the same for game adaptations? Netflix has already announced development on an adaptation of Playstation’s Horizon Zero Dawn—another hit game with a great story and compelling characters. Amazon just released a first look at their upcoming Fallout series. We’ve seen how great novels and equally great film versions can stand alone as their own art. I’m ready to say the same for great stories that originated in games. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to say it here.
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