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‘The Last of Us’ raises standards for future video game adaptations

Image used with permission from Sony Interactive Entertainment
“The Last of Us” continues to have a thriving fanbase 10 years after the video game’s release. The TV adaptation has the unique task of satisfying fans of the video game and general audiences.

The pilot of HBO’s dystopian thriller “The Last of Us” became the second most-watched debut on its platform Jan. 15, according to The Washington Post. The show is an adaptation of “The Last of Us” video game released in 2013.

The original video game follows Joel, played by Pedro Pascal in the adaptation, and an orphaned teenage girl named Ellie, portrayed by Bella Ramsey. In the game, Ellie discovers she is immune to the fungal zombie infection that has wiped through the population. Tasked with transporting Ellie to a rebel group that needs her blood to make a vaccine, players complete the game by playing as both characters, watching Joel and Ellie’s relationship evolve.

Video game adaptations are notorious for receiving poor reviews from gamers and general audiences alike. The reviews for the “Resident Evil” franchise were mostly negative, with Rotten Tomatoes reporting the highest critics’ rating of any of the movies was a measly 39%.

In 2016, “Assassin’s Creed”, another action-based video game adaptation, hit theaters and received similarly poor reviews, with an audience score of 42% on Rotten Tomatoes and 5.6/10 on IMDB. Despite a star-studded cast, critics found the actors dull, also pointing to poor visuals and an overly complicated storyline as reasons for their disappointment. 

The issue with video game adaptations arises from abandoning their source material. The characters or missions are simply too weak for some games to create a cohesive movie plot. Video games tend to be action-based, with short clips of the story added to give the players a break; this can be difficult to execute as a full-length feature film. 

Other times, adaptations change the existing storyline or ignore it altogether. These movies can still be received well by general audiences but tend to be shunned by avid players. More recent films like “Uncharted” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” have proved popular while significantly deviating from the game itself.

What makes “The Last of Us” different from other adaptations has as much to do with the original video game as the effort put in by the creators and producers of the show. The video game is character-driven with a simple plot, and most non-interactive scenes rely on the relationships formed between the characters. It is as much about the characters and their stories as about killing the infected mushroom people.

Still, credit must be given to the actors and creators of the adaptation. Neil Druckmann, a creator and director of the video game, was heavily involved in the show’s production. The show follows the same storyline of the quest to kill people infected by the mushrooms, adding its own creative liberties to excite viewers who might know the twists of the original story. 

Pascal and Ramsey stay true to the original characters but do not copy the previous voice actors’ performances from the game. Their acting choices present a fresh but familiar take on the fan-favorite survivalists that build on the characters instead of duplicating or completely recreating them. This balance of new and old material makes the video game transition smoothly into a series format, a common failure among other adaptations.

The most notable similarity between “The Last of Us” series and the video game is the parallels in the cinematography. The pilot episode includes a sequence where Joel’s daughter, Sarah, is riding in the back of his truck the night the pandemic began, shot from her point of view. Players choosing to watch the show can appreciate the filmmakers’ intention to replicate the video game’s look.

“The Last of Us” succeeds in adapting a video game to television because of the game’s character-driven story and the showrunners’ attention to detail. The series was intended to please both the general public and fans of the game and challenge the negative precedent of video game adaptations. 

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