It still doesn’t actually feel real to me. We’re two episodes into HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s 2013 blockbuster The Last Of Us, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s actually happened—that one of my all-time favorite games has been adapted, and more than that: That the adaptation is good!
The lead-up to the release of the show was for me a roller coaster of trepidation and excitement. It’s not that there aren’t examples of successful—or at least fun-video game adaptations, it’s that they are very much the exception that proves the rule. By and large, the move from interactive medium to passive tends to not work out so well.
HBO had two things going for it from the start that gave me hope, though. One was the tight involvement of game series co-creator, co-director, and writer, Neil Druckmann. The second was the quality of the source material: The Last Of Us (and, even more so, its sequel) features writing and performances that are far and above what the vast majority of video games tend to pull off. They are stories anchored to a resonant humanity, populated by characters that come across as real people. Real, complicated, conflicted people, that we care about deeply.
There is a huge gulf between the group of games that includes things like The Last Of Us series, the new God Of War games, and Red Dead Redemption 2, and the group that contains basically everything else. Part of that is down to the sheer power of budget (and here it should be noted that some of the very best writing in the industry is actually found in small indie games), but to lay it all at its feet would be to ignore the glaringly obvious fact that the majority of triple-A games come nowhere near to the quality found in these. The simple truth is that there is an insane amount of talent and skill at work behind the scenes on games like The Last Of Us (and, unforgivably, often crunch too, but we’ll save that for another time).
Watching HBO’s attempt at adapting a story so beloved to me has been an intense experience. On the one hand, I was primed to enjoy things more because I already had a built-in investment. The flip side of that is I’m more likely to be disappointed if the end result doesn’t live up to the high bar that exists in my head. So far, we are firmly in the former camp. The season premiere floored me. When the moment happened, I shed a few tears. It couldn’t be helped. That part of the original game was seared indelibly into my emotional memory in 2013 and it’s never budged since. And if you are not someone who’s played the original game, and you think that was intense, wait until you see what’s coming.
The second episode didn’t bowl me over quite as much as the first, but that’s not a knock against it. It was still damn good-especially the intro sequence, which was a brand new bit of the story not seen before in the games. This touches on another of the main things that I, as a fan, am looking out for: What’s been added, or changed, and what remains the same. I’m not one of those people who complains when things change in adaptations. Quite the opposite. I welcome change. A story needs to flex and warp and morph as it moves from medium to medium—and even from storyteller to storyteller. The end result is all that matters. The quality, the emotional truth, the characters, that’s where a story lives or dies. Who gives a sh*t if plot beats vary or an actor portraying a character doesn’t look anything like them?
One thing I can’t stand is the ‘look at the shiny thing’ brand of storytelling that relies on dangling something in front of you that you recognise from something else. Recognition in lieu of actual substance, which so much of popular culture seems to be based on. The Last Of Us isn’t trading in this. It seems to be (so far successfully) walking a fine line between keeping things the same and changing things up. There are shots and images throughout the first two episodes that (from my memory) are lifted directly from the game. That’s no crime, as the games are often superbly directed and shot, and the incidences of this so far haven’t been jarring. For the fan, they hearken back to the game; for the new viewer, they simply slot into the flow of things. Ellie on the plank comes to mind (though I believe that originally took place in the pre-dawn light rather than full daytime); as do various shots of Boston.
At times, the experience of watching the show as a devotee of the games can be a somewhat uncanny one. Joel and Ellie and the others in the original story exist in my mind as real people—not forms made out of CGI—so to see them suddenly portrayed by beings that are recognizably human is quite powerful. A particularly curious manifestation of the porous membrane between the games and the show came in two moments in this last episode: When Joel moved the wardrobe, and when he boosted Tess up. Both are actions that are repeated throughout the games, and the framing of it combined with overall visual fidelity to the games that the show has displayed made it momentarily feel as if there was a phantom controller in my hand, and a part of my mind made moved to reach for it.
The world of The Last Of Us is as much of a character as any of the people in it. The games do an incredible job of enriching the narrative we play through their design. The Last Of Us Part II in particular is one of the most beautiful and affecting game worlds I’ve ever experienced. As I wrote in my review of the game:
Look around the derelict, collapsing hotels, cafes, offices, shops, and apartments, and you will see how the spaces once colonised by our parasitic industry and adorned with the rich and often beautiful tapestry of our lives have sprouted with new life. Decayed corpses in uniform, notes loved ones left for each other, posters about local community events, a long-forgotten child’s playroom littered with debris, a bank in the midst of being robbed, the mania of the act frozen in place forever by the Cordyceps cataclysm. Houses littered with evidence of lives abandoned. Board games lay unfinished on living room tables. Clothes strewn over beds. Plans made in urgent haste, arrested forever. Seattle rests on one knee, bowed and brought low, a modern-day Pompeii.
So far, the TV show has been doing this justice. Both my partner and I—she as much of a fan of the games as I—couldn’t stop talking about how well the design and cinematography have evoked the spirit and the look of the original: A hauntingly beautiful elegy wrought on a global scale and reflected everywhere you look.
One of the biggest changes the show has made from the original is the removal of spores. A central mechanic of the games is that you repeatedly stumble upon areas—often those not ventilated or otherwise closed off—that are affected by airborne spores of the world-destroying Cordyceps. In these areas, all characters don gas masks. To do anything else is to damn yourself to certain infection. It makes sense from a gameplay perspective, as it introduces naturally walled-off areas of heightened threat; and it’s also used in clever ways to serve the narrative due to the spores having no effect on Ellie. The show has gotten rid of spores and replaced them with tendrils, and I can see why. Having your actors mask up repeatedly would likely create an emotional distance between them and the audience (corporate meddling about not seeing actors’ faces notwithstanding), but the way the tendrils work—creating a threat potentially anywhere, not just in isolated areas—heightens the tension and reinforces a key message: Nowhere is safe. The spores may well have been a more believable agent of rapid world destruction, but I’m okay with this change I think.
Fundamentally, though, all these things really pale in comparison compared to one thing, one key factor which will determine whether the show turns out to be a success or not. Joel and Ellie. Everything hinges on the relationship between these two. Amidst all the wreckage and chaos and death of their fallen world, and regardless of however much spectacle HBO might be able to wring out of the premise, the emotional core—the reason that this story has resonated with me, and so many others, so strongly for a decade—lies with Joel and Ellie. If they get that right, everything else will follow.