The world of TV and film has always had a somewhat fraught relationship with the world of video games. Both tell stories, but the methods are wildly different. There have been many attempts to bridge the gap with live action adaptations of games and game versions of films and series. It is notoriously difficult to please the fans of one with the other. HBO’s The Last of Us might be the first truly great adaptation of a video game story to TV.
In 2013, when the world was at the height of zombie fever, Naughty Dog released a video game that would take the first tentative steps towards blurring the lines between TV and games. The Last of Us challenged the player to reevaluate the kind of story that a game can tell, with its heart-wrenching road trip through the post-apocalypse feeling and looking more like a competitor to The Walking Dead TV series than to the Resident Evil games.
The Last of Us delivered a story that took a handful of familiar zombie media tropes to weave together a gripping story, and sprinkled them with the magic of time and buy-in that video games grant. Now we have come full circle, with HBO coming along and taking that exceptional story and giving it all the gifts of the screen.
Pedro Pascal, who plays protagonist Joel, dominates every shot, embodying the physicality of a character who works with his hands. The show starts out 20 years before the apocalyptic events leading up to the main story, on outbreak day. Joel’s birthday.
He’s 36 and his teenage daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) chides him for working a double and forgetting to get a cake. The show, like the game, puts us in Sarah’s eyes here. Vulnerable and scared as the situation escalates, Joel and Sarah are joined by Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) as they attempt to flee Austin, Texas, for somewhere safer.
Things start out sorrowfully for our hero and after the time skip the show goes to great lengths to make sure we know that Joel has not dealt with his grief healthily. He quips to a soldier he’s bartering with “the more people you kill, the harder it is to sleep,” and is pictured later necking booze and pills before crashing fully clothed into bed.
An exchange between Joel, his partner Tess, and their contact goes south and the pair quickly become embroiled in the dealings of the Fireflies, a separatist movement hellbent on freeing Boston from FEDRA, who keep an iron grip on the reins of the Quarantine Zone. The Boston Fireflies leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who also played Marlene in the game) convinces them to smuggle some precious cargo out of the Zone and to an awaiting band of Fireflies.
This cargo is unlike anything that Joel and Tess usually deal with. Mouthy and armed, Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is a teenage girl with a serious attitude and a secret. No time is wasted in establishing the facts that one, Ellie reminds Joel inexorably of Sarah, and two, he would really prefer it if she didn’t. However, as the second protagonist of the show, he is forced to agree to the terms and thus begins a video game relationship good enough for TV.
The game was lauded for many things, its environment design being high amongst them, and this is one area where the TV show has not taken its foot off the gas. The world feels bleak and hopeless, giant areas fenced off for safety, sad and desperate people doing sad and desperate things.
Ellie has never been outside the Quarantine Zone. The first episode ends with a shot which pans up over the skyline of skyscrapers leaning on each other, vegetation and decay the primary residents, along with the unspoken Biological Threat.
HBO’s The Last of Us takes the characters and story from the game and makes tweaks, flourishes, and embellishments here and there, but the beats, the theme, even some exact shots and lines of dialogue are faithful to the game. Why some things have changed remains to be seen but the things they haven’t altered give me hope that the changes aren’t purposeless.
You can buy into a character doing things in a game that it’s harder to sell in a TV show and one hypothesis is that TV audiences won’t warm to Joel in the same way if he’s doing all this for merchandise rather than his missing brother. Whatever the reason, the show has Neil Druckmann, one of the game’s directors, to keep them right.
All in all, episode one of HBO’s The Last of Us is both a faithful adaptation of the game, and its own thing. Its similarities have built trust and let viewers know that the beloved story is in safe hands.
Featured Image Credit: HBO/Warner Bros.