Video game adaptations are a tricky thing to get right. There have been some films and series that break the mold, but most end up somewhere in the range of “meh,” “terrible,” and “so terrible it’s kind of funny.” This I believe stems from a combination of factors, including a general disdain for the idea of games as art that persists within Hollywood, unreasonably high fan expectations, and a general struggle to adapt something so deeply tied to interaction to a more static form. I am therefore pleased to announce that HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has so far proved to be pretty solid in its early episodes. The Last of Us was one of the most well-received and respected entries in the medium of video games when it released in the early 2010s, and with it in essence being 70 percent film already in terms of structure, it was dying for this kind of treatment. It has all the classic elements of a terrifying and unique zombie apocalypse, a strong emotional dynamic, and the world’s worst cross-country road trip.
Adaptations, particularly of video games, tend to drastically mess with the source material. Whether these be awkward additions, cut concepts, or just a completely unrecognizable transformation (see 1993’s Super Mario Bros.), these kinds of changes are typically not received well. The Last of Us smartly avoids this pitfall by sticking heavily to the original script, even to exact lines of dialogue and scene composition, and only making alterations in the form of smoothing out narrative sections that were largely gameplay heavy or inserting interesting flashbacks to before the “totally-not-zombie” outbreak. I really liked the additional scenes from the early period of the outbreak. It felt like they meaningfully fleshed out the world of the series and carefully built upon the framework the game provided. Seeing things like the flashback to Jakarta and the 60s talk show made the setting feel immersive and comprehensive. I particularly liked the extra scenes with Joel and his family as they made the eventual shocking collapse of everything around him that much more impactful.
The one issue I have with how closely the series sticks to the game is that hearing the same dialogue and seeing the scenes play out identically to the game evokes a little bit of a nauseating “déjà vu” feeling after a while. It’s not a huge issue, but they shouldn’t have felt that constrained by the source material.
In terms of performances, Pedro Pascal is fantastic as Joel. He really manages to capture the heart of the performances in the scenes before the collapse of society, and he comes off as very hopeless and silently angry in the bulk of the series. Bella Ramsey works well as Ellie, although she hasn’t been given too much time to really shine in any particular scenes yet. Her performance is solid though, managing to capture Ellie’s characteristic sarcastic demeanor, and she works well with Pascal.
The real standout element of the series is its cinematography and visuals. The series looks fantastic. The use of what I assume is a massive green screen or a digital backdrop screen to create these amazing vistas of overgrown urban landscapes works fantastically well, and the interiors of buildings are suitably grimy and disgusting. The level of attention to detail really makes the world feel alive and lived-in. The effects on the fungus are also pretty neat. The clickers look disgusting, the giant fungal masses on their heads are incredibly well done, and they make the suitably horrific clicking noises and screeches. I also really like the effects for the fungus that clings to buildings and the creepy little tendrils. They even managed to loot the fungal wall guy from Annihilation.
The Last of Us promises to be one of the best shows of the year and is a thoughtful adaptation of a modern classic in gaming. It has great performances, fantastic special effects, and a lot of creative spirit. I would strongly recommend the series if you happened to be a fan of the source material, or if you just like competently made zombie related media.