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I consider The Last of Us series (Parts I and II) to be my favorite video game series of all time. And so I was watching like a hawk for any deviations from the game story when I viewed HBO’s television series The Last of Us.
When Joel and Tess began shooting at the Infected (zombie-like characters) in a museum, I kept thinking they should be going for head shots. Wouldn’t they know that a headshot would bring down the creatures without wasting precious ammo? And when we first met Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey), the video game was so ingrained in my mind that I felt like they looked nothing like the “real” Joel and Ellie that I knew from the 2013 first game.
I might have veered into the vein of criticism that this wasn’t doing the video game justice. Why didn’t they show the scene where Joel and fellow smuggler Tess (Anna Torv) put on gas masks to protect themselves from viral spores? Why didn’t they show the fight where they hunt down Robert the swindling smuggler?
But I remembered that the show is an adaptation. Now that I’ve watched all of the episodes as a reviewer, I’m calming down. The show is not a repeat of the game, and it is meant to reach a wider audience with the richly detailed world and gripping storytelling of Naughty Dog’s video game. This is not just another version of The Walking Dead, or Resident Evil, or Night of the Living Dead.
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The TV show is not about the tactics you use to save yourself ammunition in a video game by going for the quick kill with a headshot. The violence is meant to convey the brutality of the world after a pandemic. When Joel beats the living hell out of a Fedra soldier, you can feel the emotion behind the violence, which is far in excess of what is necessary just to log a video game kill.
It brings home how the world has become so deadly that the only object in life on a daily basis is to survive. The point isn’t to depict all of the firefights in the video game or achieve some higher purpose. It’s to show how relationships and characters change in the attempt to live another day in the world.
Neil Druckmann, co-creator of The Last of Us, worked on the HBO project as showrunner to ensure that it didn’t turn into another bad game-to-film adaptation. He said in an interview with the New York Times, “The most important thing was to keep the soul of it, what it’s about: these relationships.” He worked on it with fellow showrunner Craig Mazin, who helped make Chernobyl, another excellent HBO show.
Indeed, this show is about the slow development of a relationship between Joel, a broken man who lost his daughter 20 years earlier as the pandemic began, and Ellie, a 14-year-old orphan who talks smack and holds the key to finding a cure for the virus. They’re forced together even though they despise each other, and only their ability to survive chaos so well keeps them together. They survive so much, and yet fate keeps throwing horrors and heartbreak at them again and again. It’s like a test for how much they can take.
While the game debuted in 2013 in a fictional world, that life has become eerily familiar in the post-COVID reality. Rooted in the real Cordyceps, a parasitic fungus works its way into the brains of humans who have been bitten by carriers. It turns them into cannibalistic zombies and they go on to bite others.
A similar thing really happens to ants, where they become controlled by something that treats them as a kind of hive mind. The beginning of the TV show adds this context (which wasn’t present in the game) for how an incurable virus spreads through the human population in spite of attempts to contain it with fascistic military force. Adding context that the video game didn’t have is actually a reason for the show to exist, as (like any good transmedia) it creates a new “touchpoint” for fans to engage with an intellectual property they love and experience it from a different view.
A lot of gamers who have played the series will still have the question: Why make a TV series? Why should I watch it? It makes you wonder if Hollywood, having looted every story in comic books, is so bankrupt that it must now start raiding the stories of video games. Gamers are a more discerning audience. They’re not going to accept disrespect for their source material. Just look at the reaction that the Halo series got on Paramount+. But I think gamers should give this show a fair shake.
For HBO, there is another audience out there. Those who are unfamiliar with the franchise but want to understand its world are key to expanding the reach, much like with the audience of fans of Riot Games’ Arcane show on Netflix, which expands on the League of Legends gaming universe. I’m not a League of Legends player, but Arcane was an enthralling experience for me.
With our pandemic, we know all too well that life imitated games, and now with this television show, we see that film is imitating games. Yet the beauty of The Last of Us on HBO is that it figures out by episode three that this is not a copy of the game. It goes beyond what is possible in the games by shifting the point of view away from Joel and Ellie to other characters who are effectively side quests in the game. The challenge is exactly like a video game sequel, where you want to give players what they want and at the same time give them something new.
Horror and chaos
The first episode gave me a sense of what another writer called the “reverse uncanny valley.” It followed the events of the beginning of the game accurately, but it was unnerving to see that Sarah, the daughter of Joel, looked nothing like she did in the video game. And Bella Ramsey looks nothing like Ellie. In fact, she rightly reminds us of the character Lady Lyanna in Games of Thrones.
Just as in the game, the HBO show has a lot of horror, chaos and fear.
At the outset, we see the pandemic break out in a terrifying way, shown through the eyes of Sarah (again, a departure from the game where the focus shifts to Joel quickly). We see pandemonium in the city of Austin and the military closing a ring to contain the infected people. Joel, his brother Tommy, and Sarah try to escape, only to face doom in the form of a soldier following orders to kill those trying to escape.
The story shifts to 20 years later and Joel is the shell of a human. He is emotionally hardened and is effectively just like a zombie. He has joined up with smuggler Tess to smuggle goods, drugs and more in and out of the walled-off city of Boston, one of the last outposts of humanity and the governing Fedra faction. There’s turmoil as the guerrilla fighters of the Fireflies plant bombs and ambush soldiers.
Amid this chaos, Marlene, the leader of the local Fireflies, realizes that Ellie has been bitten by an Infected and hasn’t come down with the Cordyceps virus. If she’s immune, she could produce a cure. And only if she’s smuggled out to the Fireflies’ labs. Joel wants nothing to do with smuggling the girl, but his partner Tess convinces him to go along for a short handoff. When things go awry, Joel and Ellie are left alone.
Yet Tess means something to Joel as a partner in crime. She tells him that if he can just give this girl a chance to cure the world, that will make up for the bad things they’ve done. From a narrative view, the main purpose of Tess is to plant a sense of obligation in Joel toward Ellie. He can’t just abandon Ellie as his good sense tells him to do when the going gets tough. It’s not clear if that sense of duty, or an instinct to protect a young girl who is about to be gunned down by a soldier, or a chance to make money through human smuggling, is what motivates Joel to move onward with Ellie.
It’s a kind of ugly love, appropriate for a savage world, where selfishness and selflessness coexist at any given moment. Indeed, is it foolish to try to save your friend who is being eaten by a zombie, or is there a sense of joy that you’re outrunning a person who is about to be eaten?
The terrifying thing about The Last of Us is that in this world, it is so easy to lose someone you love. Just when things seem to be going so well, the horrors of the world take down a beloved character. It is a remarkable story that Joel and Ellie can create a beautiful relationship between a surrogate father and daughter in a world that is so cruel and where relationships are so fragile they can so easily shatter. To what end will Joel go to protect the child? And vice versa?
There is nothing romantic about this story, as Washington Post reviewer Gene Park noted. Perhaps there are tender moments in remembering how life used to be, but reality always comes crashing back. The tragedy of being alone in a world where it’s a struggle to stay together hits home. There are twists and turns in the plot, and the game’s story is largely preserved in the plot of the show. But from it emerges a kind of ethic, or a way to live in a world that makes living so hard. Save who you can save.
The show is tightly written, just like the much longer game. The “bookends” idea is used more than once, including in a side quest that begins with a piano version of a Linda Ronstadt song and then closes with Ronstadt singing the recorded version.
It is poetic echoes like this, and the bookend nature of the beginning and ending of The Last of Us, that makes me think this show, like the game, might very well be a work of storytelling art. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this nine-part drama. I admire what the creators are trying to do, and I am delighted by the cultural reach of gaming as it soars into the Zeitgeist of the world with the very best it can offer.
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