By Andrew Dunbar
Making a live adaptation of a popular video game has proven to be a uniquely difficult task for filmmakers. The recent mediocrity of the “Uncharted” adaptation further demonstrated this challenge. Many video game aficionados would be quick to tell you that the medium simply doesn’t translate to live action and ought to be left alone. However, a new program on HBO seems set on changing the narrative and lifting “the video game curse.”
“The Last of Us” premiered on Jan. 15 to a massive – albeit hesitant – audience. The 2013 video game of the same title is arguably the most beloved single-player game ever made. It tells the story of a fungal infection that turns humans into monsters and wipes out most of the world’s population. Protagonist Joel Miller’s world is thrown upside down in the events of the outbreak.
After 20 years of hard survival in this apocalyptic world, Miller is tasked with transporting a girl named Ellie, who is seemingly immune to the virus, across the country. Its gripping story, immersive setting and compelling characters ensure its status as a classic.
A decade later, it is still being lauded for its role in pushing the boundaries of video game storytelling. Longtime fans of the game were miffed when the show was announced in 2020 – many would have told you that the game was already a cinematic enough experience, and trying to adapt it to film just seemed like a cash grab.
Then, more information on the series started to roll out; it was being co-written by Neil Druckmann, the head writer and creative director of the first and second games, and would star Pedro Pascal (“The Mandalorian,” “Narcos”) and Bella Ramsey (“Game of Thrones”) as protagonists Joel and Ellie. This information, combined with a great teaser trailer, had fans cautiously optimistic.
A week into February, four episodes have aired and each one has been remarkable – this is not merely a good video game adaptation, but a great television show. The pilot does an excellent job of drawing audiences in from the get go, spending more time in the pre-outbreak world and providing more information on the virus itself. Much of the first episode is spent drawing out tension before society’s inevitable collapse. Once it does, the show adds more spectacle than its video game counterpart, helped by a whopping budget of $15 million per episode.
But do not be fooled: although the cinematography and special effects look polished, detailed and realistic, much of the show’s opening episodes are spent in contained settings developing its characters.
Both lead actors have great chemistry on screen. Pascal is at the height of his craft in his performance as Joel. He realistically portrays a gruff, bereaved man with subtlety and emotion. He and Ramsey did not have an easy task, as they had to fill the shoes of two already beloved characters while adding their own style and personality.
Pascal does a great job of capturing Joel’s amorality while still displaying moments of vulnerability. Ramsey’s acting is equally effective, as much of the show’s success was riding on her portrayal of Ellie. She brings spirit, humor and depth to her performance. Also phenomenal in “Game of Thrones,” Ramsey truly is a young actress to watch in the coming years.
It should be noted that the show is accessible to new viewers who are unfamiliar with the video game. The virus is well explained and characters are thoroughly introduced, though the filmmakers do sprinkle in Easter eggs and references for longtime fans. Many lines of dialogue are lifted directly, and part of episode two is a complete recreation of one of the early levels of the game.
While staying largely faithful to the original story, the show does expand on several aspects, and for the most part these changes are welcome. Without giving away any spoilers, episode three marks the largest diversion from the source material, and it is the best episode in the series so far.
The post-apocalyptic setting is truly brought to life; the desolate landscapes and deadly infected feel more real than most shows or movies with a similar “zombie virus” premise. Rows of empty streets, abandoned cars and overgrown vegetation give off a sense of sadness and loss, and Boston’s portrayal as a federally operated quarantine zone is a sight to see.
“The Last of Us” is not for the faint of heart. Like the game it is based on, the show is scary and violent, not only because of its zombie-like infected, but in its portrayal of the depths of human depravity in the event of society’s collapse. The infected are genuinely frightening, and any viewers unsettled by a well-portrayed pandemic in the wake of COVID-19 may wish to sit this one out.
But like the game, bloodshed isn’t the focus, or what makes it great. This story holds a surprising amount of heart, and old and new fans accompanying Joel and Ellie on their journey will be delighted.
The writer is an audio engineer, freelance writer and lover of music and video games. He can be reached at [email protected]