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HBO’s Adaptation Of ‘The Last of Us’ Is A Soaring Success – Review

At long last, an adaptation of a video game that we can all be excited for. HBO’s nine-episode adaptation of The Last of Us will attract prestige television viewers and appease longtime fans of Naughty Dog’s genre-defining franchise. 

For the uninitiated, The Last of Us is set 20 years after a fungal virus has taken down human civilization. In this telling of a post-apocalypse, major population centres were bombed to slow the spread of the cordyceps brain infection that created the game’s infected baddies. Humanity, in this case, is the other monster our protagonists must contend with as vegetation retakes our concrete jungles.

(Courtesy of HBO)

Gamers are hard to please, and video game adaptations don’t have the best track record. Still, this show features a solid mix of line-for-line adaption and original storytelling from series creators and writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. Don’t worry, video game lovers; the whiteboard material and many set-piece moments remain essentially unchanged. One of the pivots from the game is an impactful change for the series; that episode, in particular, is possibly up there with the best hours of television in recent years.

The new variations flesh out the backstories while expanding the state of Joel and Ellie’s world. Exposition dialogue, side chats from the games, and details you get from collectibles are framed differently and, in some cases, in original scenes. While regular flashbacks might not work in a linear video game, they’re sometimes necessary for the viewer and can enrich the overall experience.

A piece of good news for gamers is the video game hasn’t been picked bare. If the series is your first lens into Naughty Dog’s apocalyptic world, there are plenty of reasons to check out the game. Some of the best parts to play in The Last of Us are not spoiled if the show is your primary entryway to this world. If you did start with the games, it’s easy to enjoy HBO’s version, which retains familiarity with a splash of originality to keep you entertained. It is much like seeing your favourite play with a different cast. HBO’s The Last of Us adds to the bedrock of the franchise while doing justice to one of the most remarkable narratives in gaming.

(Courtesy of HBO)

A story of this scale and scope can only shine if incredible performers take up the mantle of Joel and Ellie. Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal… HOLY SHIT! Pascal’s considerable talent and star power are in full force as Joel. He brings the necessary charm and brutality to the role. Joel is a man of few words, which allows Pascal to thrive with facial expressions alone. Pedro plays Joel’s reluctant caregiving and persisting age in a pitch-perfect way as the Joel we know and love from the games.

Another victory for the series is the existence of Bella Ramsey. When she burst on the scene as the smallest badass of Bear Island in Game of Thrones, it was a joy to cheer her on. In HBO’s The Last of Us, she has been fully unleashed. The wit, the charm, the curiosity, loss, love, and fun. Bella brings both much-needed levity and gravity to each line delivery. There are heavy moments ahead and likely some tears (they got me a few times), but Ramsey delivers one hell of a performance within that darkness. She will draw you in; she fills every frame and appears as a giant in many scenes. If you’re going to love this show, Ramsey and Pascal will be a big part of the reason why.

In the minor change department, while the subject matter is extremely dark, the TV show is a notch or two less violent than the game series. This change is most notable in Ellie’s violence, and the show also cuts away from minor pieces with Joel that the game shows in total. The reduction in brutality doesn’t affect the shape of the first story/season by much, but if the show continues, it might be harder to ramp up if they follow the second game’s story in future seasons. The first season of The Last of Us works as a fresh spin on the lone wolf and cub story type, but it truly shines because its central performers were made for these roles.

(Courtesy of HBO)

It’s hard to thoroughly compare the show to the game without addressing a few points: 

In The Last of Us game, much of the playtime is spent engaging in combat with raiders or infected and solving environmental puzzles. It would be silly to think that a nine to ten-hour TV show would have the same enemy encounters as a twelve to fifteen-hour game. The show’s infected creatures look amazing but don’t appear as often as they do in the games. The show uses runners, clickers, and infected fodder more strategically. They certainly make the most of their screen time, but don’t expect a freaky fungus fight in every episode.

In minor cases, the scenarios from the games are somewhat flipped. Swapping things like daytime for nighttime or changing the baddies in a situation from people with guns to infected. For all intents and purposes, the changes work. These adjustments feel more like a remix than a remake, and of course, the monsters on screen in The Last of Us look great due to fantastic visual effects and a healthy budget.

Adaptations are hard. They are double-edged swords that bring high expectations and, in many cases, a very engaged and eager fan base right by your side. HBO is more familiar than most, having successfully adapted Game of Thrones from books to screen twice! However, games and books are different beasts. Game of Thrones was written from a single character’s perspective, so the best “show only” bits from the early years of that series come from events that the readers never read.

An example would be the scene where Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister talk about their crap marriage in season one. That is the type of extra content that adaptations thrive on. The creatives behind The Last of Us follow a similar approach, with the extra bits that flesh out the characters and their world working very well with the change in mediums. The writing is faithful to a point which allows this show to soar.

(Courtesy of HBO)

If there is a downside to this series, it’s that, for fans of the game, we’ve seen these narratives already, literally. Unlike readers working with just their imagination and the strength of an author’s descriptions, gamers have actually experienced their stories with full visuals. The Last of Us is a game that is not lacking in cutscenes and extravagant visual storytelling. We’ve seen this story and these scenes, so it might be harder to “wow” a segment of the audience. The changes add to the experience of watching the show.

This adaption is beholden to the structure of the video game too. Since the game is Joel and Ellie on the road, we’re limited to that intimate scale. There are large location set pieces, but this isn’t an ensemble show where you’ll get seven to nine of your favourite characters converging on a location à la Euphoria, Game of Thrones, or Succession. The Last of Us is a two-person show with these characters on a cross-country journey. It moves fast because the game moves fast. Each new player who comes on the stage is there to either help or hinder Joel and Ellie as they head West. We get bits and light backstories that flesh out the other survivor groups, but for the bulk of the screen time, the audience needs to be with Joel and Ellie to keep things flowing.

(Courtesy of HBO)

So the final question is, how do they compare? Well, The Last of Us is much more than another average zombie show. This series is a thrilling retelling of  Sony’s multimillion-selling franchise that is brimming with satisfying moments. The scope is large yet focused, and the creators go out of their way to respect the show’s inspiration. If you’re attached to the portrayals from the game, this series only adds to them and honours what came before.

The Last of Us and its incredible cast will make you lean forward in your seats because the pivots from the source material are on par with the high points of Naughty Dog’s masterful game series. This is a necessary adaptation that the established fandom will praise. Hopefully, the series continues because it’s on the path to true greatness.

HBO’s The Last of Us premieres on January 15.

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