HBO's series breaks the curse of bad video game adaptations, and we're here for it.
Last Updated: 04.22 PM, Jan 18, 2023
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FEW ADAPTATIONS draw as much attention (and comparison) to their source material as HBO's new zombie post-apocalyptic drama series, The Last of Us.
Based on the critically and commercially successful 2013 video game of the same name, developed by studio Naughty Dog, the show has its task cut out not just in living up to the lofty (at times, unrealistic) expectations of a pre-existing fan base, but perhaps more importantly — in breaking the curse of bad video game adaptions aimed at adults. Along the way, it must fulfil the side-quest of breathing new life into a zombie genre stretched thin by the likes of The Walking Dead.
All that said, the show does have a few things going for it, not least its co-creator Craig Mazin. With a show like Chernobyl under his belt and film writing experience spanning decades, Mazin seems to be the prefect network/Hollywood counterbalance for Neil Druckmann, the other co-creator on the show and the creative director of the hit video game.
With HBO's backing, a promising cast (more on whom in just a moment) and a creative partnership that could potentially take the best of the game and translate it into great television, where do we find ourselves with the premiere of the 1 hour, 20 minutes-long first episode?
In a rather hopeful and exciting place...
THE LAST OF US tells the story of a global pandemic (that sure hits different post-2020) sparked in 2003 by a fungal virus that turns its victims bloodthirsty and infects those they attack.
Twenty years on, with the majority of the population infected and the world on its knees, we follow Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened middle-aged survivor living in a Boston quarantine zone — run by the authoritative Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) — with his partner Tess (Anna Torv), as a smuggler. Traumatised by the events of the initial outbreak, Joel is trying to trace his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who had failed to contact them from his location in Wyoming.
Meanwhile, Marlene (Merle Dandridge), a leader of the Fireflies, a revolutionary militia group that opposes FEDRA, is planning to smuggle a 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of the quarantine zone to meet with other members of the Fireflies at the Massachusetts State House. But when her plans go awry, she entrusts her mysteriously valuable “cargo” to Joel and Tess for the mission, in exchange for supplies that will help them track down Tommy.
And so begins the 'road-trip' across a forsaken landscape populated by the Infected, and much worse.
What stays most with those who have played The Last of Us video game is not necessarily the gameplay (rudimentary, but functional for its purposes) or the visual designs (great, but nothing groundbreaking), but the emotionally charged storyline and the well-developed characters. And at the heart of it are Joel and Ellie, and their evolving relationship.
Playing the game felt akin to being punched in the gut again and again, until you were unsure whether your eyes hurt from staring unblinkingly at the screen in fear and shock, or the crying; all leading up to one of the most memorable endings of all times.
This worked both in favour of, and against, any successive adaptation attempts.
While the game had a “real story” which could be told by itself, anything less than perfect would be deemed disastrous by the fervently invested devotees of the original. Devotion that, perhaps unsurprisingly in today's pop culture, bordered at times on mania and toxicity (case in point, the response to release of a sequel in 2020).
When it was revealed that Pascal was attached to the role of Joel, the announcement was met with a heathy dose of scepticism. The physique wasn't right, he couldn't grow a proper beard (!), on and on. But it was nothing compared to the backlash that would follow the casting of Ramsey as Ellie. The fans of the game had very specific ideas as to how these characters were supposed to look and sound.
Well, everyone can rest at easy. Watching the first episode, the duo seems tailor-made for these specific roles.
Pascal, who at this point has become something of a household name following the immense success of Game of Thrones, Narcos and The Mandalorian, slides comfortably into Joel's shoes. While the role feels similar to ones he has played before, he makes that work to his advantage. If you come in with expectations, he reliably delivers.
Ramsey, another actor who came into the limelight with Game of Thrones, but has since also been a part of acclaimed projects like His Dark Materials and Catherine Called Birdy, steals every scene she is a part of. Once you have seen her play the role, it becomes well nigh impossible to imagine anyone else in her place. It's always a challenge to cast an adult to play a teenager, but Ramsey, who is now 19, brings Ellie to life in all her innocent yet tough, foul-mouthed glory.
When it comes to the story, the show more than delivers. Not only does it faithfully follow in the step of the video game (it is a thrill to watch a few scenes done shot-for-shot), it expands and tweaks it to make the plot and the character motivations feel more credible.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Mazin discussed his approach to the show, “My mind wasn’t on whether video game adaptations in the past have failed. I approached this as: Is it a great TV show? … I think they [the game’s fans] will be just as rewarded — in a different way, but just as rewarded.” And one can see this working in the first episode. For those familiar with the story, it feels like a largely faithful yet expansive (and at times surprising) retelling. For the uninitiated, it is certain to be a thrilling and highly engaging ride (despite its runtime, the first episode hardly has any filler moments).
The world of The Last of Us, although bleak, is one you can lose yourself in. It's not so much a zombie-apocalypse story, but a story set in a zombie-apocalypse world. A story of loss and healing, with a good dose of action.
The show also retains an old-school, grimy look that makes it feel all the more grounded in realism among all the sci-fi and horror elements. Shot entirely in Alberta, Canada, the production design is well put together, although there are times when you can't help but feel the show unfolding on a set. Moreover, some CGI effects look better than others. But these are minor gripes, easily ignored.
Finally, the show retains one more element from the original game that played a major part in the millions of heartbreaks it triggered — the music composer Gustavo Santaolalla. From the opening credits to the most crucial sequences, his gentle presence, just like in the game, elevates the show.
So, will The Last of Us be the Next Big Thing? If such arguments are of any value or interest to you, it has every right to be. A great story in seemingly more than capable hands. And if the first episode, which primarily works at setting up the premise for the show, is indicative of anything, it is that the long dreaded industry curse has finally been lifted.