Speaking to The Telegraph ahead of the first episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, showrunner Craig Mazin said he was “cheating” to break the video game curse on TV and film adaptations – if there is such a thing – by choosing the “greatest story”. ever told in the medium.” While the latter claim is up for debate, after watching the first two episodes of The Last of Us, there is certainly truth to the cheating part.
In many scenes, The Last of Us is not so much an adaptation as – from the moment Gustavo Santaoalla plays acoustic guitar in the original composer – over the credits – a shot-for-shot remake, ripping lines directly from co-producer Neil Druckmann’s original video game script and recreating some intimate tracking and framing shots that you usually only see with a controller in your hand. I’ve never seen a video game source treated with such respect. And for good reason. Developer Naughty Dog crafted the PlayStation game with the same flair and attention to pacing and characterization as the prestige TV series, so “cheating,” as Mazin calls it, works both ways. The result, at least based on the early episodes, is a rather harmonious, exciting and moving piece of TV blockbuster.
Much of this comes down to choices made throughout the process, the main one being casting, of course. Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller has the power of stars, but he’s also very good at thinking about every human being. While neither his beard nor Texas accent is as thick as Joel’s from the video game (played by veteran voice actor Troy Baker), the essence of the character is the same – a broken, brutal and terrifying grump. At the beginning of a post-apocalyptic mushroom-filled dystopia, it becomes clear that America is in that Joel is not one of the good guys; he does backyard drug dealings with oppressive quarantine guards and is more than ready to smack the snot of anyone who gives him a funny look.
Many other characters follow a similar trend of imitating video game inspiration. Anna Torv is wonderfully spiky as Joel’s partner Tess (originally played by Annie Wersching), while Merle Dandridge as rebel leader Marlene is the only actor in the series to reprise her own role from the game.
Bella Ramsey as Ellie – the young girl Joel and Tess are tasked with transporting through Boston via Marlene – is a bit more of a departure. But only slightly. In the game, Ellie (played by Ashley Johnson) is combative and unflappable, but has a softer side and sees the world with her eyes wide open. In comparison, Ramsey’s Ellie is angry, vulgar, and unwilling to take on the initial treatment of fireflies and Joel’s sit-down indifference. I think it’s a small change for the better, strengthening that side of Ellie and getting closer to the character she’s going to become. Although I expect some of that softness to come when the trio crosses the quarantine zone and finds themselves in the wreckage and wonder of a world that existed before Ellie was born.
For someone who has played The Last of Us many times, the differences and additions are the most interesting part of watching the Mazin and HBO adaptations. A full 1:1 recreation would be useless as you’d have to spend a lot of time watching Joel move boards around and crab around dilapidated offices, dusting every roll of duct tape and pair of scissors in sight. Or having his neck bitten off by a mushroom zombie several times in a row, but trying again. These gaps have been filled with cleverly thought-out TV diversions that are vastly different from anything else in the game, but only serve to enhance its story, not overwrite it. The “double prologue” of the first episode was especially chilling as 1960s scientist John Hannah explained in horrific detail the potential for a fungal pandemic to take over the brains of humanity and crush society as we know it. It wasn’t in the game, and it certainly engendered a pragmatic fear of Mazin’s Chernobyl series. Yes, they’re zombies no matter how you dress them; but seeing it presented in such a scientific way was a great way to get the audience’s attention immediately.
The slowburn 2003 sequence where the infection spreads was a significant extension of the game’s heartbreaking prologue. Spending more time with Joel’s daughter Sara (Nico Parker) as the first signs of the Cordyceps apocalypse started to appear was wonderfully done. And the blurry image of an old lady becoming one of the first victims of the mushrooms as Sarah idlely flips through her DVD collection isn’t something that’s going to leave me anytime soon.
This particular segment culminates in a thrilling car chase through a world that is coming to an end, tightly and nimbly shot; the infected and victims spilling out of bars into the streets of chaos, burning buildings, the camera revolving between Joel and his brother in the front, and a terrified Sarah in the back. My wife watching with me, who had not played the game, was particularly impressed, saying she had never seen anything like it, but it felt very much like being in a video game. And it did, being another faithful recreation of the PlayStation scene. That was impressive enough in-game, so achieving it in live action was no small feat. And certainly not at a small cost.
But it summed up how The Last of Us balanced out; it’s not at all ashamed that it’s based on a video game. Much of the so-called “curse” of junk video game adaptations boils down to studios that either avoid playing games to their strengths, or act so campy and silly as to become a pastiche. Action is exceptionally good in blockbuster video games, so why not lend some of that flair to your big action set?
Add character depth and world building that a TV show could spend more time on, and you have a great partnership. In fact, I’d rather The Last of Us move away from the game in parts over the course of the series, taking paths none of us have seen before. But if it retains the soul and atmosphere of its source, as it did in the early knocks, we’re all in for a win.