On the surface of it, there was always going to be so very much that could have gone wrong with HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Jointly brought to life by series game director Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, HBO’s The Last of Us manages to walk that particularly tricky tightrope with verve, crafting a palpably harrowing affair that at once hews appreciably closely to its much revered source material all the while bravely striking out on its own terms. Indeed the proof of HBO’s The Last of Us calibre is in the proverbial fungi pudding, as each successive episode to date has not only gained increasing critical acclaim, but also the viewership figures to match. With that in mind, here’s how HBO managed to both stick with and move away from the source material to create the best video game adaptation ever.
Please note, spoilers for HBO’s The Last of Us will follow.
The Double Episode Cold Open That Immerses Newcomers In The Fungal Apocalypse
Keenly aware that a great swathe of HBO’s potential audience has never picked up a controller, let alone play any of the games in the series, Mazin and Druckmann had to set the scene with an opening that introduced viewers to the origins of Cordyceps infection that would eventually decimate the humankind. Never revealed in the game series itself, the first two episodes of HBO’s The Last of Us show us two points in time prior to the Cordyceps pandemic. The first is a late night talk show which takes place in 1968 and has the always entertaining John Hannah playing a fungal expert that coldly and calmly undercuts the snarky overtones of the talk show host stating that when the conditions are right for a fungal infection to spread to humans, we’re all deeply, deeply screwed. And so we are.
The cold open of the second episode meanwhile fast forwards to September 2003 and whisks us off to Jakarta as the Cordyceps infection has just started to gain traction. Predominantly viewed from the perspective of Professor Ibu Ratna (played with conviction by Christine Hakim), the series second cold open reinforces the hopelessness of the scenario: that the Cordyceps infection cannot be prevented or cured. These introductory sequences don’t just ram home the overall bleakness of The Last of Us, but each one also serves to underscore the importance of Ellie’s ‘condition’ to audiences that haven’t had the benefit of immersing themselves in the source material. As such, these two cold opens act as superior introductions to the uninitiated as a result.
A Perfectly Chosen Cast That Extends The Scope Of The Games
Any live-action adaptation of The Last of Us worth its salt was always going to be judged on the quality of its cast and HBO’s take on Naughty Dog’s magnum opus has certainly been no exception. Thankfully, the folks at HBO have hit the jackpot with their casting choices. Pedro Pascal continues his excellent ‘protector dad’ streak with Joel, deftly embodying the gruffness and weariness of a broken man in a broken world looking for meaning. Bella Ramsay meanwhile is superb as Ellie, balancing out her whip smart nature and sometimes furious outbursts with the vulnerability that ultimately defines her character early on. As a pair, the chemistry between Ramsay and Pascal beautifully mirrors that of their videogame counterparts, as the two gradually establish a familial bond that is defined by struggle, loss and heartache.
The cast choices extend beyond the cast of characters that we know from the videogame, too. Melanie Lynskey (most recently seen chomping up the scenery in the excellent Yellowjackets) steps into the role of Kathleen, taking a terrifying turn as a ruthless militia leader that never featured in the video game and yet reinforces the mercenary nature of humankind in the aftermath of the Cordyceps pandemic. Australian actor Murray Bartlett meanwhile takes on the mantle of Frank, a sensitive and nuanced character that never utters a word in the videogame but is integral to the HBO show in an unexpectedly profound way. Simply put, other video game adaptations up until now have never enjoyed this level of nuanced characterisation and it will be hard to go back once the credits roll on the season finale of HBO’s The Last of Us.
Bringing Light To The Darkness
Though HBO’s The Last of Us largely sticks to the narrative trajectory established by The Last of Us and the Left Behind DLC expansion, it does take detours at points that feel both surprising, yet sensible. Perhaps the biggest of these deviations from the source material comes in the third episode where Nick Offerman offers up a heart wrenchingly emotional performance as hardened survivalist Bill who warms his heart to wandering survivor Frank, resulting in the two men striking up a tender, loving relationship that is very much at odds with the grimdark overtones of it’s setting.
This is especially notable since in the original videogame, not only is Frank already deceased by the time Ellie and Joel reach Bill, but they discover a note which describes how much Frank resented his relationship with Bill. Ultimately, a stunning achievement that should have everyone involved loading up their car trunks with gold when Emmy season comes around, the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us is one that not only arguably improves upon the source material in very definite terms, but which also provides a welcome ray of light where none previously existed.
Destroyed Beauty That Is Perfectly Replicated On Screen
One of the biggest factors that separates The Last of Us from other apocalyptic yarns is how it depicts a world that isn’t uniformly grey and rundown to within an inch of its life, but where Mother Nature has begun to swiftly reclaim her domain. From the abundant presence of flora and fauna, to the depiction of how the Cordyceps virus itself encroaches on both natural and man-made environments, there’s just no apocalypse that quite looks like the one dreamed up by Druckmann and company. HBO’s The Last of Us is right up there with some of the most expensive television shows ever made and it shows, both in production value and the wealth of talent that has managed the herculean task of so completely transplanting destroyed beauty into the real world.
A Change To The Nature Of The Infected
A notable difference that HBO’s The Last of Us boasts in comparison to its videogame source material is how the Cordyceps infection actually functions. Though transmission can be achieved through the usual means of just chewing on folk as we see in both the game and the television show, in HBO’s The Last of Us the Cordyceps fungi now spreads through a bunch of creepy tendrils that sprout out from the gullet of the infected. In retrospect changing the nature of the Cordyceps infection from airborne spores to Thing-esque tendrils makes a whole heap of sense, not least because having the Cordyceps infection as sporous, airborne infection strains credibility when it comes to how it could be contained, as the notion of having ‘spore pockets’ that don’t spread across the world in the games has long been chuckle-worthy.
Further afield, the changes to the Cordyceps fungi go beyond just the infected as well. In HBO’s The Last of Us we see that interacting with seemingly dormant fungal growth alerts all infected in the nearby vicinity to that location, suggesting for the first time that the Cordyceps infection creates a sort of ‘hive mind’ that connects each of its infected hosts. In practice, this also seems like a feature that should be included in The Last of Us Part 3, whenever that decides to grace us with its presence, but don’t hold your breath.
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