The moment I heard the familiar notes of Gustavo Santaolalla - 'the maestro’, as he is affectionately called by the story’s creator Neil Druckmann - in episode one of HBO’s “The Last of Us”, I was overwhelmed with the nostalgia and warmth I felt when I first experienced the original game. It was a gut feeling, I was about to watch one of the best video game-to-TV adaptations ever.
I won’t make any fanciful or long-winded attempt to hide it, I am very much a fan of The Last of Us - from its original release on the PlayStation 3 in 2013 to its various remasters (and there’s been a fair few) and expansions. The game and its original cast are very much part of my creative influences and inspirations. But when I heard about the development of the television series, just after talks of a Sam Raimi-produced film fizzled out (what a sight that would have been), I was initially sceptical. Even with the stellar cast of Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Nick Offerman, and Gabriel Luna, some of this unease remained—a skosh, a smidge.
Part of me persistently braced for the gut punch of disappointment while awaiting the eventual trailer reveal. A small part of my mind didn’t want to see anything that differed from the original story, and the excellent performances of Troy Baker (Joel), Ashley Johnson (Ellie), Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy), and Merle Dandridge (Marlene). I suppose this came from the various “failures” that preceded it over the years. Other studios would attempt to find success in the Film and TV world, but these often involved a detrimental straying away from source material (e.g. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Prince of Persia, Resident Evil) or the establishment of new, confusing lore (e.g., Assassin’s Creed).
The Last of Us TV series does something different. The series itself (so far) is signposted with the familiar key scenes and interactions from the video games, of course, but with minor differences in how they played out, in doing so establishing a furthered sense of context. For example, the first episode gives us far more time with Joel’s daughter, Sarah, than in the game. It provides context to her sense of self, and an actual ‘playing out’ of the events mentioned in passing during gameplay- we see her pay for Joel’s birthday present and gift it to him later in a scene straight from the game. However, within this, we also see the playing out of alternatives to pivotal moments of the story- for example, its introduction to the audience of “the infected”. Sarah, in the dead of night, visits the neighbours to see Grandma Adler feasting on the neck of her daughter, fungal tendrils (another alternative take of the series) clinging to the wounds. It’s the welcome contrast of familiarity and difference.
The mixture of accurate/“true” adaptation and alternative pathways marks the TV show not as an adaptation, or a re-do, but as an evolution of the story. It’s a strange paradox of remaining true to the source material while depicting alternative means to familiar ends. In some cases, this is out of necessity; executive producer, writer, and director Craig Mazin stated the series had to stray from the game’s focus on the infection’s spore-based manner of spreading because the gas masks utilised often in the game would obscure actors’ performances, hence the pivot towards the aforementioned fungal tendrils. Within this choice, we’re presented with a more accurate portrayal of the cordyceps virus in the real world, as well as a treat for fans of the original game with a call-back to the virus’s depiction in early concept art. Here, we’re gifted with more of that familiarity and difference.
With a new medium comes more freedom—as seen in the various elaborations and explorations of certain characters and moments in the story’s early stages. Besides Sarah, we learn Tommy is a Veteran of the first Desert Storm operation and overnight boarder in Travis County Jails, and we find out how the ever-badass Tess winds up coming to Joel beaten and possessing information surrounding “Robert”, as she did in the game.
So, what’s the value in adaptation and alternative story paths? It allows us to experience a familiar story from an unrestricted perspective. We are no longer bound to Joel’s point of view, as “the player”; we are no longer bound to video game logic and pillars of gameplay (the spores, gas masks, etc.). Through the work of the dream team of Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, we are able to experience an evolution of the story known and loved by many. It is true to what we first experienced all those years ago while offering something refreshing and gripping to both that same audience and newer viewers who can now experience the story in a medium possibly more accessible to them—one free of the sweaty-palmed panic experienced by players during the “Bloater” encounter, and the “David” arc later in the game.
All in all, regardless of what is adapted straight from the video game, or what is tackled differently in the series, the story remains true to its core. It remains a story of humanity, one of love. Its place as a “zombie story” is maintained, but it is not its focus, per se; it befits Druckmann’s original writing philosophy (one maintained even in the show’s production) as focused on a simple story, with complex characters. The story, in a new medium, endures and survives.
The Last of Us is currently airing on Sky Atlantic every Monday and streaming on NowTV
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Film and TV Deputy Editor