Back in 2013, a little video game called The Last of Us changed the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. This is of course due to the visceral gameplay and overall chilling atmosphere, but largely because of the relationship between the two main characters who the player plays/follows — Joel, a 52-year-old hardened smuggler, and Ellie, a brave 14-year-old girl — who are forced to survive in a post-apocalyptic America, dodging and killing raiders, cannibals and of course, the infected. The setting of the first game (yup, as of 2020 there’s a part II) really serves as a backdrop for the growing relationship between Joel and Ellie as they make their way across bombed-out American cities, decaying ski lodges and other unwelcoming terrain, learning more about each other’s pasts and developing a sort of surrogate father-daughter relationship along the way. It’s a special game, something that teaches you about the carnage of mankind, the importance of love and sensitivity, and to cherish the little moments in a cruel, harsh world. It’s something that players definitely revisited, yet it never had to be replicated.
It’s now 2023 and we have the HBO TV series The Last of Us, starring Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie, and I can say that based on the tone, acting and world-building of the 90-minute pilot, it’s probably going to be a series that die-hard fans of the game will recognize as being more than acceptable. But this series isn’t just for them. It’s for viewers who never played the game, or potentially will after watching the series. For them, this will probably have the same lasting impact as the good seasons of The Walking Dead and be lauded as a magnificent achievement.
Let’s start with a few impeccable elements the show gets right or even improves on. The settings — down to Joel’s apartment layout, the streets of a post-infection, military-occupied Boston, the lineups for survivor ration cards, the crumbling high-rise or suburban landscapes that are being taken over by nature due to a lack of humanity’s imprint — are a superb reimagining. The tone of hopelessness is also in the air, down to the dusty lighting, screaming babies in the distance, outdoor hangings for people trying to escape, the tired eyes of the survivors, dirty deals being brokered with the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) soldiers. Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting score from the game also provides significant ambiance. Music is a huge part of The Last of Us, so getting the original composer is an advantage.
The cinematography and camera work is also spot on, usually following Joel’s perspective, but also some other characters like his tough-as-nails partner in crime Tess (played by a compelling Anna Torv) and Marlene (played by Merle Dandridge), the leader of Boston’s reactionary resistance group, the Fireflies. These other character perspectives give us more story points than the game. Still, the show’s creators — Neil Druckmann, the writer and director of the game, and Craig Mazin, the showrunner of the exquisite Chernobyl mini-series — sometimes don’t know when too much plot is a downfall.
Don’t get me wrong, there are added elements that enhance The Last of Us’s world for the better — like the cool radio song signals Joel and some of the survivors use to alert each other, or Joel basically being FEDRA’s drug dealer — but the fault of the first episode that will no doubt annoy some people who know the plot of the game inside and out comes during its beginning. Of course this wouldn’t be a shot-for-shot retelling — just watch the two-hour splice up of all the game’s cinematics on YouTube if you want that — but the example that will probably leave fans scratching their heads is the prologue.
After a 1968 TV interview segment talking about the power of fungi’s control over the human race (’cause why not), the prologue takes place in Austin, TX, 20 years before the real meat of The Last of Us. After going to school, Sarah (Joel’s daughter, played by Nico Parker) heads to a repair shop to fix Joel’s favourite watch for his birthday. She spots police cars whizzing down the street and the watch repairman says this has been “happening all day,” before a woman comes in, frantic, saying the store is now closed. Soon after, Sarah walks to her next door neighbour’s to borrow a DVD (this is 2003) but doesn’t notice the elderly woman in the chair start tweaking out and manically contorting her head before giving up the ghost. You can guess what happens later — that same elderly woman turns into a rampaging zombie, signalling the ‘end times’ the TVs and radios have been hinting at.
All of the preamble with Sarah lasts almost 20 minutes, and while the zombie grandma thing is cool, it doesn’t really add anything. Clearly the showrunners wanted the viewer to care about Sarah and be afraid for her before her heartbreaking pre-determined fate, but it kind of just comes off as useless exposition.The game’s prologue makes you play as Sarah and you start to learn about her life through photographs, a birthday card from Joel and the banter she has with her dad. It doesn’t waste time and makes you care about Sarah and her relationship with Joel. In the show, there’s also no real chemistry between Sarah and Joel. Parker does a fine job, but some of the lines feel forced or thrown away. I hope this chemistry problem does not repeat with Joel with Ellie, because that’s the show.
Of course, the TV prologue amps up during the quintessential escape scene with Joel, his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and Sarah as they drive through a chaotic Austin filled with bloodthirsty zombies, explosions, gunshots and general terror. The show takes this further with a plane dive bombing on the street. It’s tense, exciting and while almost to a tee like the game, expands on it. Just good TV.
Perhaps the most important aspect for the show is the acting from Pascal and Ramsey. So do they cut the mustard? Deliver the lines with gravitas, but add another flavour? Yes and no. Let’s start with Pascal, a wonderful actor who is damn entertaining and likeable on screen, but is he the game’s Joel? No, he’s not. And he never could be. Pascal’s got the rugged lonely lonestar thing down, and when he gets violent, it’s glorious, but his facial expression never really changes. It’s solemn, like Joel in the game’s, but even when he’s in a tense situation, it remains solemn, unchanging. It’s not a huge problem, but definitely noticeable. He also only has a very subtle Texan accent and flair, while game-Joel could have been a country music star — a quality that made him captivating and downright loveable in the game. Other than that, Pascal does a fine job with his version of Joel and I have no doubt that he will bring something more to the character. Not that he needs it.
What about Ramsey, who dazzled fans as the badass Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones? Honestly? She kills it. She doesn’t steal the show, but she plays the foul-mouthed, annoying and naive Ellie perfectly, and her voice work is almost sometimes a shoo-in for the original. I can’t wait for her to piss off Joel and eventually save his ass.
So there you have it. The Last of Us is definitely worth a watch, but fans of the game need to know that there will be stylistic and plot changes, changes that may sour some overall impressions to start.
Still, are video game adaptations ever gold? No they’re not, but The Last of Us, despite its flaws, seems like it might be damn close. ■
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