I feel like I do this every year. Where I zone in on an upcoming video game movie adaptation and “This, this is the one,” only to be disappointed or left conceding that it’s good, but hardly the revelation I had hoped. Turns out, I might have been looking in the wrong medium, as there’s something undeniably special about HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed The Last Us; it feels like the real deal, even though there has only been a single promotional photograph released thus far, leaked set photos aside.
For those unfamiliar with The Last of Us, it is a post-apocalyptic survival horror game where a cordyceps fungus has evolved to infect humans, turning those unlucky enough to contract it into mindless cannibals that can infect others with so much as a bite. Admittedly, on paper the story’s set up sounds like another zombie apocalypse piece that avoids using the “Z” word, but there is so much more to it than that.
In the first instalment (which is what the first season of the show will be based on) you play primarily as Joel, who will be portrayed by Pedro Pascal, whose career was launched by his role as Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones. Joel is a smuggler that has survived the collapse of society for twenty years, and early into the story he is tasked with escorting a teen named Ellie, played by fellow Game of Thrones alum Bella Ramsey, who he eventually discovers is immune to the very fungus that continues to plague humanity. Understanding that Ellie could hold the cure to the cordyceps, Joel guides and protects Ellie as they travel across America seeking the Fireflies, a rebel militia who have the means to harness her immunity.
I remember first hearing about The Last of Us exactly ten years ago – Sony made the announcement in December 2011 – and the anticipation that had gradually accumulated from there. Its developers, Naughty Dog, had earned the respect of audiences and critics alike with their work on the Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted franchises (the latter of which will have a film adaptation of its own releasing in February 2022), and while expectations were high for the studio’s latest IP, The Last of Us still managed to exceed them, setting a new benchmark for video game narratives and the manner in which they can be reflected in gameplay. It is now widely regarded as one of the greatest achievements in the history of video games.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last of Us franchises also injected a cinematic quality that was unseen in video games prior, and so the only real surprise is that it took studios this long adapt them. Part of the draw for any studio is how movie-ready they are, as games like Pokémon or Mortal Kombat each require a concerted reshuffling of narrative and characters to make them work in the context of a live action film or TV show.
This readiness is reflected in what we know of The Last of Us TV show, which is still filming in Calgary and is reportedly the largest television product in the history of Canada. The game is so movie-ready, in fact, that many of the best-known side characters, such as Bill and Tess, will appear, to be played respectively by Con O’Neill and Anna Torv, while Merle Dandridge, who voiced the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, will reprise her role in the TV show, which is almost unheard of. Moreover, the actor who voiced Joel’s brother Tommy in the games, Jeffrey Pierce, will play a character named Perry, who is created solely for the show but will apparently have an important part to play. Gabriel Luna, who recently played the villainous Terminator in Terminator: Date Fate, will portray Tommy instead.
If all this wasn’t enough, the one constant lead creative behind The Last of Us since its inception, Neill Druckmann, has had a significant role in developing and writing the TV adaptation alongside its showrunner Craig Maizin, who is best known for his outstanding work as creator and showrunner of another HBO series, Chernobyl.
All the information we have, short of the inevitable trailer, points to a notably faithful realisation of The Last of Us that seems closer to the source material than any video game adaptation I have ever encountered. In his seminal book “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting”, the godfather of modern screenwriting, Syd Field, once rhetorically posed the question, “So what is the fine art of adaptation?”, to which he replied, “NOT being true to the original.” So many similarities and overlaps between the original and the adaptation would spell trouble to some, especially those familiar with the workings of screenwriting, but fans familiar with The Last of Us know better. In the same chapter, Field also concedes to the wise words of Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally, who adapted the likes of The Silence of the Lambs and The Juror, which is that “The last thing you’re concerned with…is invention for its own sake. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
And there it is. The Last of Us is one of the seminal stories in all of video games, and its faithful adaptation speaks to the inherent strength of the original story, as recognised by both Druckmann and Maizin. Nonetheless, the TV adaptation obviously cannot simply recreate the video game frame-for-frame; they are different mediums, and as such require different methods of pacing. Druckmann has expressed as much, explaining on the Script Apart podcast that while the show will stay close and true to the source material, he gleefully acknowledged “Now we’re in a different medium, let’s play to the strengths of this medium,” a point on which Maizin would later doubled down, stating “The changes that we’re making are designed to fill things out and expand, not to undo, but rather to enhance.”
Essentially, Druckmann and Maizin are creating the adaptation of The Last of Us that fans could only have dreamed of, yet they are also taking the opportunity to further develop and explore the incredible foundation laid by the 2013 original game, and it is being handled by a creative team at the peak of their brilliance, with a cast to match them.
I have hedged many bets on video game adaptations over the years and generally come up short, but HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us is making all the right moves this far into its production, and upon release, it doesn’t just have the potential to fill the vacuum left by Game of Thrones, but it could be the defining video game adaptation against which all others would be judged.