When I think of live-action video-game adaptations, there are a few franchises that spring to mind. There’s Angelina Jolie’s sultry Lara Croft swaggering through a senseless plot line. Milla Jokovich going quite literally all guns blazing amidst a constant bombardment of zombie hordes, without any recollection of quite how she got there. Then there’s the painful horror/unintentional comedy of the 2000s Silent Hill films.
What do these all have in common? Well, aside from the Resident Evil franchise having a die hard base of guilty fans (myself included), the films named here are not likely to be cropping up on any critic’s top 10 list. Although the last few years have seen a sudden rise in highly successful animated video-game adaptations like Arcane and Castlevania, The Last of Us seems to be, in my opinion, the first to master a live-action adaptation of the platform: sorry Witcher.
So how has The Last of Us evaded the decades long adaptation curse? Firstly, the show was created by the main writer of the video-game and co-president of Naughty Dog, Neil Druckmann. Far from being a senseless cash grab by studio executives with very little appreciation of what made people fall in love with the source material, Neil Druckmann understands this world like no other because it is his own. The fact that his co-writer is Craig Mazin, the creator of Chernobyl, certainly doesn’t hurt either.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, ‘it wasn’t as good as the book’. The issue with adapting something as lengthy as a book or video-game into a film is that it forces the writer to vastly condense the source material. In a narrative that relies on the relationship between Joel and Ellie to engage the audience, it would’ve been impossible to set this all up in such a short space of time. So deciding that The Last of Us should be a series instead was already a pivotal first step to its success.
Step two is that the series is not a direct adaptation of the game. Druckmann and Mazin use the TV show to build on the world rather than simply retell Joel and Ellie’s story. The characters are either expanded upon or often given somewhat different backstories to keep them feeling fresh to long-standing fans of the series.
I have found myself comparing the character’s video-game representations to the TV series in a way that, for once, isn’t at all detrimental to either platform’s version. I came out of the first few episodes stunned to discover I actually preferred the Tess in the show. But when I decided I preferred the video-game Riley, there was no malice to accompany my verdict. It wasn’t that I liked her better because she was better, something about that version of her character simply appealed more to my interests.
Next is that Druckmann and Mazin haven’t tried to include everything that is a significant part of the The Last of Us game. Because video-games are primarily an interactive medium, many of their most important segments boil down not only to narrative moments but also to mechanics- which doesn’t always track so well in live-action adaptations. Sure, I loved shooting infected as Joel whilst suspended upside-down from one of Bill’s traps, but would it have worked in the series?
Video-game adaptations notoriously seem to belittle their gamer audiences by assuming that what draws people to the franchise can only be the gameplay, so the primary focus of the show often becomes the spectacle of violence. But the writers here know better than to do any of that, and focus on what’s actually important in the narrative.
Finally, The Last of Us is just an all round well written, well directed, well acted, well shot TV show, irrelevant of whether or not it is an original narrative. There is not a single shameless fibre of a corporate money grab scheme woven into a second of the series. So much effort and attention has been paid into every scene, and the cast are able to rejuvenate the original characters in the most surprising of ways. Most importantly the show achieves something I’ve always dreamed of; it’s turned one of my favourite video-games into a series I can now discuss with my friends, and my family.
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