HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’: The Future of Video Game Adaptations?


Still from “The Last of Us” (Courtesy HBO)

By Arlo Marler


In the first few minutes of HBO’s newest prestige television craze “The Last of Us,” the adaptation of the beloved video game quickly establishes the driving force of the show and the inevitable downfall of human civilization, while smartly delivering exposition.

On the topic of viral pandemics, an epidemiologist (John Hannah) says that they’re old news, something humanity always prevails over. The bigger threat? Fungi and its unsettling capabilities. This statement renders laughter from the audience as if what he is saying is a joke, but he follows up by saying, “Fungi seem harmless enough. Many species know otherwise because there are some fungi who seek not to kill, but to control”. 

He offers a simple example of the cordyceps virus, a real-life example that overtakes the brains of ants like puppets — but thankfully not the brains of humans… yet.

The audience in the show, perhaps like the audience watching at home, laugh in response to his proposition. The epidemiologist continues to ask another question: What if the earth were to get increasingly but ever so slightly warmer? Well, as we find out in the unfurling rest of the episode, that simple increase of temperature would grant passage to a mycological undead apocalypse. 

An Uncannily Faithful Adaptation, Not Just a Recreation 

The first episode faithfully adapts the source material, particularly the heart-rending beginning, with unmatched detail and precision. The main beloved duo is played by internet favorite Pedro Pascal in yet another father figure role as Joel, while the rapscallion-esque Ellie is played by gender-fluid actor Bella Ramsey. The first episode especially highlights the impeccable acting talent of Nico Parker, my pick for this series’ sleeper-hit actor who plays Joel’s daughter Sarah. While faithfully following the amount of time she exists in the game, it’s a shame we don’t get more of her.

Creative liberties are thoughtfully taken and translated to the screen while still staying faithful to the source material. In fact, there is an extended scene that is almost a shot-for-shot of a portion of the game where the characters are trying to find a way out of the quickly collapsing city that is being closed in by the government to contain the potential cordyceps infection. Everything in this sequence, from the camera movement to the individual shots of roads, houses and passersby seen from the perspective of Sarah, shows the strategy behind the show that seems to already be catapulting it to all-time status among fans and newcomers alike. Other elements, like the spores in the game, are changed for the show to be tendrils that come out of the mouth of the infected, a more realistic and logistically possible way of passing on the cordyceps fungus according to the show’s creators.

All of this is to say, this show is seemingly succeeding in treading a very fine line of pleasing devoted and already established fans of the game while also creating a version of the story from the game that can stand on its own — something that can occasionally bring it down a very slight notch as some scenes seem too close to the point of feeling a bit formulaic. But perhaps that is just coming from someone who has played the first game more than the average viewer and knows many of the plot points by heart. 

Last of Us' HBO Show Will Reduce Game's Graphic Violence | IndieWire
Pedro Pascal in “The Last of Us” (Courtesy HBO)

Diversity, Queerness and Toxic Fandom Culture 

One expected but exceedingly annoying external aspect of the show comes from a loud minority of fans online complaining about the more diverse cast. This trolling sentiment seems to have carried on from the second game, “The Last of Us Part II,” and has thankfully been drowned out by the show’s deafening praise. One of the biggest complaints comes from trolls online grumbling that Ellie doesn’t resemble the version from the game close enough, completely ignoring the fact that the video game version was played by an adult woman (Ashley Johnson). But as long as Ramsey embodies the character as a teenager while keeping key aspects of what made the original great, nothing else should matter. Other complaints come from the fact that Sarah is played by a Black actor whereas the character was white with blonde hair in the game, another shallow take on behalf of supposed fans.

Ellie is also confirmed as queer in the first game’s DLC “Left Behind” in her relationship with the short-lived character Riley (Storm Reid). Other characters Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) are expanded upon, making Frank more than just a mention in an in-game letter but a fully fleshed-out character spotlighting not one but two prominent queer relationships in the show. Another casting choice of note is that of the character Sam, who in the show is played by young, deaf actor (Keivonn Woodard), which could change his backstory when he appears.

None of these changes drastically change or deviate from the source material, but add to a different, more expanded version of the original story. Instead of focusing on the same old toxic monotony, we should embrace these changes. If the recent uproar of support is any indication, none of these shallow complaints matter. 

The Last of Us (Video Game 2013) - IMDb
Still from “The Last of Us” 2013 Original Video Game (Courtesy IMDb)

Treading the Weeks Ahead

“The Last of Us” has already been hailed by critics and fans alike as the best video game adaptation of all time. Perhaps this is in part due to the co-creator Neil Druckmann being brought on in addition to “Chernobyl” television show creator Craig Mazin to maintain what really made the original game so special. Perhaps it’s due to fans’ elation with its high-quality set design, an above-average script and fully embodied casting in a prestige television show coming in spiritual succession to the hit television show “The Walking Dead“, Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” or even hints of the film “Children of Men.”

Is it that the bar for video game adaptations has been so low in the past with successful, albeit mediocre or just plain bad adaptations such as the “Resident Evil” films, “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” or “Sonic the Hedgehog“? Or is a large part of the hype purely hyperbolic?

Seeing as the general public has only seen four out of nine episodes in the first season so far, after seeing the whole series in the coming weeks, I remain hopeful of this show’s potential. 


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