With production having concluded in Alberta for HBO’s upcoming adaptation of the Naughty Dog video game The Last of Us its marketing has kicked into gear, and while the trailers released thus far have been teasers, they nonetheless showcase the tantalizing potential of the series, suggesting that, for a number of reasons, it could fill the hole left by Game of Thrones since its finale in 2019.
Before you say it, yes, arguments can be made that the ‘next Game of Thrones’ is already on television, as its prequel, House of the Dragon, as well as Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are currently airing their first seasons, but that doesn’t necessarily make either of them the second coming of one of the most popular TV shows of all time. While House of the Dragon certainly ticks similar boxes to its predecessor with sex, violence, grey characterisations and political intrigue, viewers are also wary after the insultingly disappointing finale of Game of Thrones, something that is reflected in the recently released Nielsen ratings, which shows The Lord of the Rings claiming the number one spot at 1.3 billion minutes watched, while House of the Dragon lags behind at fifth with 781 million minutes. That’s not to say those are bad numbers by any means, but it’s certainly telling, especially when your genre rival is beating you by almost double the numbers. Though, The Lord of The Rings has problems of its own, as fan response has been resonantly negative to the show, especially compared to the largely positive response to House of the Dragon, with audiences decrying everything from the performances, writing, and characterisations to its disregard of Tolkien’s established historical lore.
While both critical and commercial numbers can certainly improve over time, neither show has truly achieved the same level of hype and worldwide obsession as did Game of Thrones, but The Last of Us has the potential to do just that.
Adaptations are all the rage these days, which are for the most part taken from books and comics, or other TV shows and movies, but The Last of Us is based on a video game series, and to say that video game adaptations have a chequered history would be a gross understatement. By and large the film industry has struggled to successfully adapt from the video game genre, with most productions landing on the negative side of Rotten Tomatoes’ scoring system. However, filmmakers have been making strides in recent years, releasing the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel, Detective Pikachu and The Angry Birds Movie 2 to largely positive reviews, while the Netflix series Arcane, based on the video game series League of Legends, is being hailed as the greatest video game adaptation to date in any medium.
That’s for now, at least, as The Last of Us has all the components to transcend the issues of the video game adaptation and become a worldwide phenomenon. To begin with, this is, after all, a HBO show, and thus budget constraints are a non-issue when it comes to realizing the post-apocalyptic world in which The Last of Us is set. Then, they have the right creatives pulling the narrative strings of the show, with Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin and the video game’s creator, writer and director, Neill Druckmann, serving as developers, showrunners, producers, and core writers of the series. Druckmann’s involvement is especially notable, as it feeds into the intention to adapt the show as closely to the source material as possible, which is narratively outstanding in its own right and features many cinematic qualities that made its adaptation more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if’. Hell, they even cast the actress Merle Dandridge to reprise her role as Firefly leader Marlene, having originally voiced her in the first video game, while the voice actor of Joel’s brother Sam, Jeffrey Pierce, will be playing a character named Perry.
Speaking of the cast, fan-favourite Game of Thrones alums Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell) and Bella Ramsey (Lyanna Mormont) portray lead characters Joel and Ellie, while an equally impressive supporting cast includes vastly underrated talents such as Gabriel Luna, Anna Torv and Nick Offerman, while in a surprise turn the recently Emmy-nominated Melanie Lynskey was revealed as being part of the cast in the trailer released last week.
Yet despite all this star power both in front of and behind the camera, the real star of the show, and what could truly elevate it to Game of Thrones heights, is the story itself. There’s a reason, as mentioned, why the show is being so closely adapted to the source material. The Last of Us boasts one of the greatest narratives in the history of gaming, centring on Joel and Ellie, two survivors living in a world that collapsed after a cordyceps fungus evolved to infect humans, turning them into mindless cannibals. Joel – who knew a life before the collapse – is now a smuggler who is tasked with transporting Ellie – who was born into this post-apocalyptic world – for reasons initially unknown to Joel, until he realises that Ellie is immune to the cordyceps and could be humanity’s only chance for a cure. Upon their journey, they will face many obstacles, while Joel gradually comes to care for Ellie like she was his daughter, having lost his own daughter many years earlier.
While there will be science-fiction, violence and set-pieces galore in the show, even just based on the trailers alone, what should really shine through, if it’s well-adapted, is that in the midst of all the carefully choreographed chaos there’s a grounded, human story that can be both devastating and beautiful. What’s more, there should be plenty of twists and deaths that prove overwhelming to viewers in a similar fashion to Game of Thrones, but without actually making it a linchpin of the show’s dramatic tension, something that dragged Game of Thrones down in its latter seasons. That being said, it will be interesting to see how they adapt The Last of Us Part 2, as there are some shocking developments in the sequel that proved divisive to many fans and could stir up narrative controversies similar to Game of Thrones, but it remains to be seen how they will handle this moving forward.
In short, The Last of Us could do for video game adaptations what Game of Thrones did for fantasy, which is not something I say lightly. HBO, Mazin and Druckmann seems to be making all the right moves, particularly in how they recognize the strength of the source material with which they are working, altering it where necessary but making the core story and characters largely untouched, which is in a bold move in and of itself, as the general consensus is that a successful adaptation is one that it notably unfaithful to the original. Yet, when the source material is one of the most inherently cinematic video games ever made, one that seamlessly juggles drama, horror and emotion with such gusto, it makes sense to go against the grain here, with the hopes of ushering in a new worldwide craze in the vein of Game of Thrones. Whether this will be the case, though, remains to be seen, with its 2023 release looming ever closer.