HBO's 'The Last Of Us' Is a Faithful Adaptation and a Riveting Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
A few thoughts on 'The Last Of Us.'
The Last Of Us is one of my favorite videogames of all time.
First released in 2013 for the Playstation 3 (the game has gone on to be remade and remastered at least twice in the years since), The Last of Us spun a thrilling post-apocalyptic tale about two survivors, Joel and Ellie, and their attempt to travel across the US on a dangerous quest. Taking much of its inspiration and language from the world of cinema, The Last Of Us proved that a videogame could tell a story that had just as much weight and emotional resonance as a film. The game’s production values, voice acting, and script were all top notch. For me, it marked a turning point in how I think about videogames as an artistic form.
On January 15th, HBO will premiere a TV adaptation of The Last Of Us. The creative team consists of Craig Maizin, whose Chernobyl miniseries was a masterpiece, and Neil Druckmann, the creator of the original videogame. An exciting combination, to be sure.
Since I’ll be covering the show for Decoding TV, I was able to watch the first two episodes (the first four were made available to me), and the embargo lifted today so I wanted to share a few brief thoughts. I won’t be revealing any specific plot details beyond what I’ve already said above.
My overall thoughts
I am really enjoying The Last Of Us so far. It’s a faithful adaptation that’s also a thrilling piece of entertainment. Most of the biggest and best story beats from the game have been re-created here, often lovingly in shot-for-shot detail. And despite the fact that I already know most of what happens, at many points I found myself holding my breath, on the edge of my seat, or deeply moved — a testament to how effectively this story is rendered.
The cast is tremendous; Pedro Pascal does a wonderful job of portraying Joel, a hardened survivor, and Bella Ramsey is great in the role of Ellie, a rebellious teen who’s probably seen more tragedy and sorrow than most of us will in our lifetimes. The production values are also top-notch. While CG had to be relied upon at least somewhat to depict a United States left mostly in ruins, most of the sets and set pieces feel convincing — a real feat for a story of this level of ambition. If you’re a fan of the creature and set design from the videogame, I think you’ll really appreciate what they were able to accomplish here in bringing some of these ideas into the physical world.
What’s most fascinating to me are the ways the show deviates from the source material. The show widens the aperture of the original story — whereas the videogame occasionally felt claustrophobic in its fixation on Joel and Ellie (often effectively so), The Last Of Us on HBO provides further context for the wider world around them and the events that lead to the societal collapse they’re living through. We also learn a great deal more about side characters that felt more like cameos in the videogame.
Do these changes make the story better? For the most part, yes. In particular, showing us more of the relationships between these characters helps us develop an emotional connection in a way that stands in for being able to play as them in a videogame. These additional connections and touchpoints make subsequent events even more meaningful and harrowing. And they certainly make the story into something that’s better suited for the Prestige TV packaging it finds itself in.
But I also have a lot of lingering questions about The Last Of Us. Questions like: In a post-Walking-Dead, post-Last-of-Us-videogame world, does The Last Of Us still have something more to add to our pop culture? How will the show handle The Last Of Us Part II, assuming they even get there? And what will newcomers, who’ve never played the videogame, ultimately think of the saga of Joel and Ellie? My affection for the videogame inhibits my ability to answer these questions impartially. I can’t wait to see what the rest of you think of it.
The Last Of Us premieres on HBO on January 15th. Listen to my weekly recaps with Christian Spicer on Decoding TV. Listen to our preview episode here.
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What Other People Are Saying about ‘The Last Of Us’
The Last Of Us has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing and the feedback seems to be overwhelmingly positive.
Stephen Kelly from the BBC calls it the best videogame adaptation ever made:
[I]t doesn't feel even remotely controversial to call this the best video game adaptation ever made. For fans of the game, it is an adaptation of the utmost skill and reverence, yet one still capable of surprise; for people who have never picked up a controller, it is an encapsulation of the game's heart and soul – its full-blooded characters, its neat plotting, its mature themes of love and loss. It is, to finish Ellie's joke, "outstanding in its field".
Kotaku’s Carolyn Petit is largely positive but is concerned about the show’s devotion to its source material:
The way the show dares to diverge from the game to alter our sense of their relationship is frankly exciting, and gives the entire series a very different (and better) thematic shape than it would otherwise have. It shows what adaptations can do when they dare to break away and adapt a story to the strengths of the medium in which they’re operating […] And yet the show, for all the changes it does dare to make, remains a little too concerned about what those viewers might think. I wish that The Last of Us had taken more liberties than it does. It feels at times like it wants to let the story breathe and expand and become something else, but also as if it’s afraid of alienating the kinds of viewers Druckmann nods to in the quote above—as if it knows it has to check off a list of expected story beats and that it can’t stray too far from what certain viewers expect.
Simon Cardy from IGN loved it:
The best adaptations don't just imitate their source material but aim to enrich for those familiar with it, while also acting as an entry point for those who aren’t. HBO's The Last of Us does exactly that: a brilliant retelling of one of video games’ most beloved stories that rebottles the lightning of what made it so special to many in the first place, letting it strike again to stunning effect. Thanks to a pair of phenomenal lead performances and a beautifully executed vision of what it is to find hope and love in a world hellbent on denying it, The Last of Us thrills from the first episode to the last.
Jen Chaney from Vulture says the show will “invade your psyche”:
During its clicker-evading odyssey, The Last of Us makes a point of pausing to acknowledge how much humans take for granted and how easily it could all disappear. It’s certainly not the first work of fiction to take note of that. But the series reminds us why postapocalyptic stories continue to invade our psyches: They remind us of the value of being alive and how terrifying it would be to stand among the few who still are.
Gene Park from The Washington Post enjoyed the show but wonders at how additive some of the changes are:
There is a nagging sense that some minor changes to dialogue were made just for the sake of change, and it’s hard for me, as someone who’s digested the game thoroughly for years, to parse whether they work better. In my initial judgment, they seem like lateral changes, not worse, not necessarily better. Viewers in the know will notice, and like me, may wonder why these changes were made when the original lines conveyed the same information and emotions.
But as someone who admires the original game and what it achieved, HBO’s “The Last of Us” is still a fascinating and enjoyable ride through an old familiar adventure tale, powered by actors who honor the original vision. When I compare the two stories, and the artistic choices made to differentiate the show from the game, I have to admit: The HBO version sometimes steals the show.
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Lets go, I'd like to know how people who didn't played the game like Scott M and the reviewer formerly known as JoyOfNapping think of tlou HBO.
I have the game but haven’t played yet. I don’t really want to cram it but am willing to do so since I want to watch the show week to week but don’t want the game experience spoiled. I may be in a tough spot here and am open to suggestions. Thanks for the write up!