HBO’s The Last of Us, headed by Craig Mazin (of Chernobyl fame) and Neil Druckmann, the co-creator of the original 2013 source material, is one of the most successful and well-received video game adaptations ever. Traditionally, video game movies and TV shows have not fared well, both critically and at the box office. They’re usually shallow IP grabs from studios who lose sight of the fact that the defining quality of a video game is the part where you play it.
I find it baffling that so many game adaptations are of franchises where the gameplay outshines the stories. We have multiple Mortal Kombat movies (games where literally all you do is fight), two unrelated Hitman movies (whose games on which they’re based are specifically renowned for their puzzle box-like gameplay), and even an Angry Birds movie. How low can we go? The answer is very – just look up a list of video game movies and you’ll see.
I understand the impulse: take an IP a lot of people know and tell a story with that specific coat of paint on it. The issue is, it’s a very lazy approach to storytelling. Past the specific window dressing of what you’re adapting, it’s hard to make people care about an original story – a story that likely isn’t very compelling because you’re relying mostly on name recognition to get people in seats.
Enter The Last of Us. Hailed as having one of the best stories in a video game ever, and generally considered one of the greatest video games of all time, it’s a natural pick for an adaptation. Funnily enough, I think the original game has the opposite issue most games do when it comes to adaptations, as its story far and away outshines its gameplay (which, prior to its upcoming re-release next week, consisted of a lot of rote third-person action – the remake’s gameplay has been much enhanced and is more similar to its recent sequel). I bring this up because the show brings some of these formulaic qualities with it that prevent it from transcending its original medium.
The crux of the show is the relationship between Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). In the world of the show, a virus called cordyceps has ravaged the world, turning its victims into creatures called “infected” (i.e. zombies or "clickers"). Order is kept by FEDRA, a dictatorial government, while a resistance movement (the Fireflies) hopes to overthrow them and find a cure. The show takes place 20 years into the pandemic, but the first part of the pilot takes it back to the day of the initial outbreak when we see Joel’s teenage daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) killed by a soldier as they flee.
Despite only having a brief setup, the impact of the moment is felt. We haven’t known Joel very long, but Pascal makes the role and his relationship with his daughter feel lived-in from the get-go, and the result is a devastating death scene. Twenty years later, he lives in a FEDRA-controlled quarantine zone in Boston, where he falls into a Firefly plan to transport teenager Ellie (who is immune to the virus) to a hospital across the country. The relationship that develops over the course of the season is clearly a surrogate father-daughter relationship, and it’s far and away the best part of the show.
Pascal and Ramsey have excellent chemistry from the get-go, and they elevate the material to the point where I would have been happy to just have a season of them traveling, bantering, and deepening their bond. I’m also a sucker for a precocious young character, and Ramsey is no stranger to that kind of role, having appeared in HBO’s Game of Thrones as Lyanna Mormont, a ten-year-old girl who leads her own house of warriors. Ellie’s precocity allows for great moments both dramatic and comedic, as she has to grow up fast and experience traumatic things alongside the middle-aged Joel, but can also communicate with him as a peer.
Pascal is initially her reluctant, grizzled protector, but as they warm up to each other and grow closer, he becomes a friend and confidant. His tenure as baby Yoda’s guardian on The Mandalorian doesn’t hurt this perception either, nor does the internet’s often invasive obsession with him and his “DILF energy” (I’m not denying it, but a lot of people are just very weird about him online and have no sense of boundaries).
Where I think the show falls short is in the way it goes about adapting the original game. At times, it’s too straightforward, while at other times it exercises artistic license to a point of losing its essence. Some parts of the game experience just don’t translate well to TV. In a game, you’re the one pushing things forward, and in a game like The Last of Us, its well-crafted story moments are what you go through the combat and exploration sections to discover – (not to say that those sections don’t stand on their own gameplay merits).
In the game, when Ellie sees a giraffe for the first time, it feels like a special, earned moment because of all the work you’ve put in thus far. In the show, it feels like a totally random event that just has to happen because it’s in the game. It doesn’t evoke that special feeling because it’s just a stop on the way from point A to point B. A lot of the series feels like that because the process of development is achieved by gameplay.
This issue is underscored by the show’s visual approach to adaptation. The first season covers the entire game in nine episodes, and sometimes it follows the game down to using the exact same shot composition from the game’s cutscenes. In fact, the show often feels like we’re watching a YouTube video titled “The Last of Us – All Cutscenes Full Movie [1080p].” It’s fortunate for the creators that they’re adapting a video game with a good story and strong cinematic elements, but it feels lazy. Part of the fun of an adaptation is seeing how the original work is re-envisioned by the new creator (although in this case, the original creator is on board too).
When the show expands on what was in the game, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The most buzzed-about episode, “Long, Long Time,” expands on characters we only briefly meet in the original game. It follows the life of Bill (Nick Offerman), a doomsday prepper who manages to evade the authorities at the start of the outbreak as he crafts a life for himself in his now-empty suburb. This involves him meeting Frank (Murray Bartlett), whom he allows into his peaceful oasis and thus his life. They fall in love, and the episode is a very sweet exploration of what a romantic relationship might look like in these circumstances. It’s a welcome detour from the hopelessness of the rest of the series, and it’s great to see Offerman in a gentler role (even if he is still typecast as a self-reliant, outdoorsy, wary-of-others libertarian á la Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation).
The other times the show decides to expand on the original property, however, are usually to its detriment, resulting in poor pacing. The best part of the show is the relationship between Ellie and Joel. Unfortunately, the show decides to separate them or explore side characters in multiple episodes. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily (like in the Bill and Frank episode), but because we only have nine episodes, it’s easy to feel short-changed. We don’t even meet Ellie until close to the end of the pilot, and all-in-all, there are about five episodes that detour us from our main characters in some way.
An episode set in Kansas City places a lot of focus on Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the leader of a militia looking for Joel and Ellie. She and her second-in-command Perry (Jeffrey Pierce) are just not terribly interesting, and their motivations (both generally and as they relate to Joel and Ellie) are pretty typical as far as post-apocalyptic story beats go.
The episode “Left Behind” has more of a reason to separate Ellie and Joel, as it’s an adaptation of an expansion of the original game. Pedro Pascal only appears briefly, and the rest of the episode is a flashback to Ellie and her friend Riley (Storm Reid) as they explore an abandoned mall. Ellie is fleshed out as a character: we see what she’s like around people her age and what kind of friend she is, as well as how she explores her sexuality. When a lingering clicker bites them both, Ellie has to kill Riley to end her suffering. It’s a good episode, but it hurts the pace of the show, airing just after an episode that sees Joel and Ellie find temporary sanctuary in Wyoming. That episode already came after two episodes in Kansas City that split their focus into multiple groups of characters who only appeared in those episodes.
I really enjoyed my time with The Last of Us, even if I spent a lot of this review complaining, but it was mostly due to the dynamic between its main duo. It’s like a good book/movie/show where you love the characters so much that you just want more of them interacting and doing their thing, no matter the context. When they adapt the second game, I hope they take a less literal approach to things. This show has elevated video game adaptations out of the lowbrow muck, but it still has yet to actually be on the level of the prestige TV it (and the internet) want you to believe it is.