The Last of Us is now the bar for Game to TV adaptations

by on January 17, 2023

I’ve been around for a while. I’m what some people like to call a “gamer of a certain age”. There aren’t many video game adaptations I haven’t seen, from Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat through Bob Hoskins’ Super Mario Bros. Jason Statham hamming it up in Dungeon Siege, and Doom, a car crash that Karl Urban’s career somehow survived. But genuinely, honestly, really, really – I have never seen a video game adaptation like The Last of Us.

I’ve only watched the first episode. 80 minutes of what will become a full series. For those who know the game, this first episode ends at a very early point in the overall story and so there’s a long way to go, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t look away.

Now, look, okay, I’ve been on record saying that Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is one of my favourite games. I’ve written about it before, covered versions of it. It staggered me over and over again. Not just with its gameplay but with the depth of raw emotion in the performances. It’s Troy Baker’s finest moment, in my opinion, but he leads a cast that never brings anything but their A-game.

The Last of Us is now the bar for Game to TV adaptations

So how do you translate that into another medium without diluting it? How do you write and make something that hooks the people who know the story already? Well, you do it like this.

Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) have performed a near miracle. It may not be 100% perfect to non-fans (my wife, for example, was slightly put off by just how bleak the world is) but this is apocalypse TV in a post-The Walking Dead world. I’d say most people watching will be expecting the bleakness.

But the truth is; the bleakness is essential. It’s absolutely, utterly mandatory, because without the bleakness you can’t possibly appreciate what the story is truly about: hope. It’s a story about hope. Redemption. Survival. Companionship.

The Last of Us is now the bar for Game to TV adaptations

In a world ravaged by the victims of a brutal fungal infection, Pedro Pascale takes the role of Joel Miller, a smuggler and survivor who has spent 20 years just staying alive. He takes on Ellie, played by Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsay, a girl who may hold the secret to ending the infection. Together they cross the US, avoiding the infected, the military, and gangs of deadly raiders.

In episode one you barely even see the infected except for the night of the outbreak, shown around a third of the way in. The rest is spent establishing the new world and introducing the characters of Joel, Ellie, Marlene, and Tess. The pacing is exquisite, but the sets and costumes, the atmosphere, steal the show. The grime is set in deep, the sense of all-pervading gloom sinks its claws in early and holds on tight. This is no emotional rollercoaster; it’s a grim descent into a world that has forgotten almost everything it used to stand for and it shows. It bleeds out of the walls of every shot.

But it may be the performances that make it work so well. The casting is spectacular. Pedro Pascale and Bella Ramsay bring the leads to life in a way that goes a step beyond just playing a role. A great big moon-step beyond it. Pascale is Joel. I won’t take away from Troy Baker’s performance here, but watching it unfold in live action is genuinely uncanny. And as for Bella Ramsay… well. She was born for this role. She embodies Ellie with an adolescent awkwardness and teenage impetuosity that makes her as instantly likable as Ashley Johnson does in the game. Anna Torv is another scene-stealer, bringing a rugged, ruthless edge to Joel’s sometime partner, Tess.

The Last of Us is now the bar for Game to TV adaptations

Before this though (and, look: spoilers… in case you want to skip this paragraph), the opening third is utterly stolen by Nico Parker’s Sarah, Joel’s daughter who is tragically lost in the initial outbreak. Her warmth and charisma build up a vision of pre-Outbreak life that makes it all the more devastating when the world ends.

The Last of Us is relentlessly grim, moodily shot, and fantastically well put together. This is now the new bar for video game adaptations, and it proves, once and for all, that it is possible to translate a game into a TV show – even one as widely beloved and talked over as The Last of Us. It’s early days, for certain, but episode one utterly captivated me. I know much of what’s to come (though Druckmann stated that a lot has been altered in the interest of keeping the audience invested and surprised) but even with the burden of all that knowledge, I can’t wait to see it unfold all over again.

The Last of Us is available on HBO in the USA, or Sky Atlantic in the UK.

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