Ten years ago when I interviewed Creative Director Neil Druckmann and Game Director Bruce Straley on their new cross-generational PlayStation hit The last of usthey quoted the Coen brothers’ 2007 film No country for old men as an important tonal inspiration. But the fact that a playthrough of The last of us lasts about 15 hours, but has always associated me more with prestige TV than with movies. A lot of games these days have Prestige TV vibes, and that’s really how it started The last of us.
And now the game that always felt like a product of the same pop culture era that gave us prestige TV, such as breaking Bad and game of Thrones has become prestige TV. Supervised by Druckmann and Chernobyl Writer/creator Craig Mazin for HBO, of course, it’s a solid, robust production through and through. Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian, game of Thrones) as Joel and Bella Ramsey (Catherine named Birdyin addition game of Thrones), while Ellie expertly leads a consistently excellent cast, and the suspense, desperation and struggle for something worth fighting for in a deadly world that characterizes the game are effectively recreated here.
What makes the series interesting is the way it necessarily deviates from the game it spawned from, and where the creators have chosen to deviate from the source material, resulting in largely a fairly faithful adaptation of the game’s story as a whole is. I’ll cover all of this in fairly general terms here, saving the nitty-gritty details and potential “spoilers” for weekly episode recaps.
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First, let’s talk about the types of changes that feel more necessary when taking them The last of us and make TV out of it. In the game, brute force is almost constant as it is called “gameplay”. On the show, however, Joel and Ellie don’t spend most of their time sneaking through derelict buildings filled with infected or trembling mobs of human attackers while also scavenging for supplies. No, the dangers of the world they live in are established in powerful, one-off moments, only to then largely recede into the background, now and then exploding back into the narrative to shock us, advance the plot, or in a moment to serve as a deus ex machina, punishing a character for his hubris.
Even Joel’s violence has been toned down, which I think is an attempt to make him more sympathetic to the audience and to make the violence he uses more effective when it happens. If you played the game you might remember that very early on Joel and his smuggling partner Tess brutally tortured an idiot named Robert who sold them for a deal, breaking his bones to get information out of him and him eventually executed. In games I think we as gamers are pretty used to this kind of violence. We’re used to collecting hundreds of corpses, so we’re less likely to be put off by such behavior. However, if you’re on a TV show trying to get viewers to align with characters they’ve just met, it can be harder to sell if they’re brutal and unsavory to begin with, and that’s how things play along Robert looked a little different. It’s a wise decision I think, one that helps make Joel – who also benefits from Pedro Pascal’s natural charisma – a little easier to back up in the early stages.
Rather than altering the fundamental arc of Joel and Ellie’s journey, some of the series’ significant changes are more extensions of what the game gives us, helping to flesh out the world, the diverse political and social dynamics it produces Places and the way people react to the hand they’re dealt. The only big change I can talk about soon enough is the prologue, which focuses on Joel’s daughter Sarah.
In the game, of course, you play as Sarah and explore the house a bit as the signs of impending doom – a newscast, a distant explosion – multiply. Interactivity makes this exploration, in which you’ll find character-building details like a birthday card she made for Joel, an effective way to draw us into the world and develop our emotional connection with Joel and Sarah before the tragic gut punch ends, which ends the prologue. On the show, however, the writers take us beyond the house and let us experience Sarah’s full day, while out in the world things quickly slide from a sense of normalcy to pure chaos. The tragic reward is of course the same, but the way to get there is slightly different, we move beyond the limits of the game and expand our view of the world.
However, there is one plot that is quite different in the show. I won’t go into detail about how it’s different, but it’s no secret that in the HBO adaptation, actor Murray Bartlett (Search, The White Lotus) was cast as Frank, a character who is never seen alive in the game. In the game, Frank was the longtime partner of Bill, a grouchy survivalist (played on the show by Nick Offerman), but before Joel and Ellie arrive, Frank has killed himself and left a rather bitter suicide note.
The way the show dares to deviate from the game to change how we feel about their relationship is frankly exciting, and gives the entire series a very different (and better) thematic shape than it would otherwise have. It shows what adaptations can do when they dare to detach and adapt a story to the strengths of the medium in which they operate. And yet Neil Druckmann is not wrong This New Yorker Story when he says, “As great as this episode is, there are going to be fans who are upset about it.”
Honestly, I wouldn’t be interested in a show that wants to be as slavishly faithful to a game as possible, or that cares excessively about reassuring viewers who just want to see their experience of the game replicated beat-by-beat on screen. The game still exists. You can always play it back if you just want to relive that experience, or damn watch one of those YouTube videos that just pull all the cutscenes together into one “movie”. If the purpose of an adjustment is not partly to to adjustto adapt to another medium and perhaps find new emotional notes, new thematic resonances, new life in a familiar story?
And yet, for all the changes it dares to make, the show remains a little too concerned about what those viewers might think. I wish that The last of us had taken more liberties than it does. It feels at times as if it wants to let the story breathe and expand and grow into something else, but also as if it’s afraid to alienate the kind of viewers Druckmann nods to in the quote above — as if it is knew that it had to tick off a list of expected story beats and that it couldn’t stray too far from what certain viewers were expecting. I know Druckmann didn’t mean it, but it’s hard not to hear him say, “To all of our fans, you’ve been in our thoughts every step of the way,” both as an expression of gratitude and as a kindness to give weight his shoulders.
There are also elements – certain Needle Drops and other prestige TV signifiers – that it delivers in a way that feels superficial or obligatory, things it doesn’t do because they reflect a specific artistic impulse, but simply because that’s the kind of thing Prestige TV does and The last of us would like to remind you that this is Prestige TV. This is after all, as Craig Mazin said: “the greatest story ever told in video games,‘ and don’t forget it.
Ultimately, what I find most fascinating about the existence of The last of us as a TV show, that tension is at its core, that seemingly never-ending battle between media types. So many insecure gamers love to hear executives at E3 press conferences tout video games as the greatest medium of all because of their interactivity, and indeed, in the interview I did with him ten years ago, Neil Druckmann said, “You can connect with a connect characters on another level when you play as them, which isn’t possible in a passive medium like a movie or a book. Now, in the run-up to the show’s premiere, Craig Mazin has effectively argued the opposite by touting the special effects of television and saying so New Yorker“I think watching a human being die should be something very different than watching pixels die.”
When something good comes from HBO The last of usI hope it makes us realize once and for all how unnecessary all these distinctions and rivalries are, how games and movies and television are all great potential art forms with different strengths, and how compelling stories of grief, loss and hope can be told is at all quite possible.
https://kotaku.com/last-of-us-hbo-tv-review-pedro-pascal-joel-ellie-bill-1849969496 A solid adaptation playing it too safe