What is it about video games that make them so tricky to adapt? Because let’s face it, of the myriad attempts we’ve seen over the years, not one has truly shone. Not one has captured the hearts of both hardcore fans and complete newcomers and trying to accommodate that usually results in failure on all fronts. Relying on fan service and nostalgia for a select few gamers, is, and will always be, a flawed strategy. Not because those details are not warranted or indeed wanted, but because that approach offers little to nothing for those who don’t know and love the games. On the other hand, you cannot abandon the source material entirely as that runs the risk of alienating the gamers, which typically make-up a healthy chunk of the viewership. So there has to be at least some connective tissue to the original IP while making it penetrable for the n00bs as they say. And there is one thing that can bridge that divide. Story. Everyone loves a good story. It’s why we go to movies, lose ourselves in video-games, laugh and cry and scream at made-up characters in make-believe worlds. Stories unite us. And rarely has a story been told as beautifully as in The Last Of Us.
The narrative elements of video games usually take a back seat in favour of delivering fun, addictive gameplay that keeps the player’s hands glued to the controller, their eyes ever-more bloodshot as they mow down hoards of zombies or stealthily cut the throats of oblivious henchmen. But story has never been the priority of developers and that’s where The Last Of Us breaks the proverbial mold. The characters and emotional beats are not only powerfully and delicately written, they’re motion-captured and voice-acted by a stunning cast that offer a depth never-before-seen in the form of a video game. There’s a reason this game is heralded as one of the greatest ever made and it is largely down to the impeccable performances and near-perfect writing and direction from creator Neil Druckmann. So The Last Of Us has something that, dare-I-say, no other game has ever had – a robust foundation on which to build a TV show.
Such a solid basis however comes with its own challenges as well as a lot of pressure and expectation (especially from the more toxic corners of the gaming community), so simply having great source material to work off isn’t enough. It needs a team of tried-and-tested creators, directors and actors to pull this thing off. And in that regard, HBO spared no expense. With Druckmann and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin at the helm, the show is off to a good start but where The Last Of Us would sink or swim was all in who they cast as the protagonist pairing of Joel and Ellie. Enter: Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. Fresh off the back of Disney+’s juggernaut The Madalorian, Pascal is hot property and this time we actually get to see his face more than once per-season. His casting made immediate sense and fans seemed confident he was up to the monumental task. The big question mark however, hovered over the head of his Game Of Thrones co-star. Ramsey’s turn in HBO’s recent fantasy epic was praised by viewers for bringing a big voice to a small role (in both stature and screen-time) making their character of Lady Mormont, indelible in the hearts and minds of us all. But taking on the role of Ellie Williams, one of the most beloved characters in all of popular culture, was a different beast entirely. Though Ramsey gets off to a shaky start, over the course of the series they inhabit the character utterly and completely. They are a different Ellie to the one we know, as is Pascal’s Joel, but different doesn’t necessarily mean bad and in fact it’s probably a wiser choice than trying to imitate their gaming counterparts. Ramsy’s emotional range is staggeringly good and they go to some pretty dark places throughout the course of their journey.
The show set out its intent early. Opening up characters that had very little to do in the game, offering them more time and space, letting the relationships breathe, an approach consistent throughout. To the point where the show actually diverts quite significantly from the game in favour of layering in new characters, colouring in the edges of the world, making it feel more lived-in. Carefully constructing the notion that there are many opposing perspectives in this world and perspective can be a powerful thing. This idea is baked into TLOU’s thematic framework and it is no doubt one that will become even more prevalent going forward as a second season (based on the second game) has already been green-lit.
Performances across the board are pretty much flawless. Gabriel Luna as Joel’s brother Tommy doesn’t get much to do but does it superbly well, as does Ana Torv’s Tess. The standout for me however is in Episode 3 where Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett occupy the majority of the screen-time. Druckmann and Mazin’s mantra going into this series was “If it’s better, we deviate”, and considering the strength of the source material, to be open to changes and deviations is a show of both courage and humility. The payoffs to this approach are many and varied in their success throughout the 9-Episode run but Episode 3 is as close to a perfect hour of television you’re ever likely to see.
Not only were the characters more fleshed out than their gaming counterparts, but so too was mythology around the Cordyceps virus (the world-ending fungus that grows inside and slowly takes over its host). This added detail improves the lore around the virus and informs why the Infected behave the way they do. However not all such additional elements are welcome. The rules within the game are very specific, which is partly why the game itself is so successful. The showrunners chose to replace some of those signature aspects of the game with new ideas that don’t make a whole lot of sense and lack consequence, making them feel entirely unnecessary. Similarly, though there are many visual nods to the gameplay, there are certain mechanics integral to the gaming experience that are overlooked in the show. Sometimes that’s simply because those mechanics don’t translate well, but having played the game there are definitely some glaring omissions that would’ve worked wonderfully in the show and also offered that added layer of recognition to gamers.
Speaking of glaring omissions, the show’s biggest failure come’s in the form of the Infected. Or should I say lack thereof. The practical effects utilised in bringing the game’s most ferocious and dangerous enemies to life is undeniably gorgeous and hats-off to everyone who worked on the visual effects. But in 9 Episodes, you can count on one hand how many times we see the Infected. That is baffling to me. The design and behaviour of the Infected in The Last Of Us is so creative and offers a different take on the ‘zombie’ to anything we’ve seen before. To dedicate so little time to them and instead having ‘people’ be the bigger danger is not only a tired trope but it’s deeply frustrating considering how many interesting ways they could have incorporated the various classes of Infected and they’re distinct strengths and weaknesses.
Ruling – Despite its flaws, and it is flawed, The Last of Us has cemented its place as one of the best shows in recent years. Only time will tell if it can sustain itself over the coming seasons but if they continue to build off the foundations of the games, then in my mind, it can only continue to succeed.