Given the long development cycles of big-budget video games, it’s rare that they resonate with a particular moment in culture in the same way that film and television do. The Last of Us 2, which had the misfortune of coming out at the height of the global pandemic, depicted a fictional global catastrophe in a way that was hard to reconcile with that in our own lives. It’s a game that depicts a world in the aftermath of a deadly infection as violent and pessimistic, where people split into factions and fight violently over resources instead of making any effort to show how communities and mutual aid contrast with it.
HBO’s adaptation of its predecessor, 2013’s The Last of Us, suffers from a similar problem as it tries to introduce the original story to new audiences and fans who want to relive it.
Led by the game’s creative director Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl showrunner Craig Mazin, The Last of Us is probably the most faithful adaptation of a video game I’ve ever seen, but the source material hasn’t aged all that well. If you have played the game or are planning when it will finally come out PC debut in two months (opens in new tab), you’ll see how close the show is to the source material. Ignoring the sections where you, as Joel, take cover and hide from the infected in typical third-person shooter style, the show goes to great lengths to mirror cutscenes (and dialogue) all the way down to camera movement. Sometimes it’s like watching a supercut of the game’s story on YouTube.
That fidelity is an achievement, but it also underscores how much the game itself strove to look like a prestigious HBO show. It used visual metaphors and camera techniques not usually seen in games back in 2013 – although Sony has turned that into a blueprint since release that’s starting to spread thin.
Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, who play gruff hero Joel and anxious teenage sidekick Ellie, largely stick to the performances in the game, with some condensation and exaggeration to make up for the show’s much shorter length. Without the game’s brutal shootings and stealth sequences, Joel’s simmering rage and explosive penchant for violence is more overtly displayed through flashbacks to the horrific event in the first episode, and it works.
Additional context, like how Joel’s daughter, Sarah, fixes the watch she gives him for his birthday and later how Tess gets a black eye when you first meet her in the game is fun to watch as someone who it has played but has not much purpose other than scaffolding.
Meanwhile, in the three episodes I’ve seen, the story makes no attempt to update itself for 2023. It gestures to the initial desperation of an infection that leads to millions of deaths, but eventually falls back on the same zombie tropes you seen time and time again.
Surviving in The Last of Us means taking what’s yours and defending it to your last breath. Other people, infected or not, are the real monsters and you remember The Walking Dead. The show doesn’t seem interested in adapting the game’s story – a man traveling through a devastated land with a girl who could save the world – and highlighting parts of it that could resonate with our reality right now.
HBO’s Joel is a sympathetic dad who goes too far because of what the world has done to him. While the show tries to reveal who Joel really is early on with a scene where he attacks a soldier who merely threatens to shoot Ellie, it doesn’t underline this as much as killing 20 soldiers in a battle sequence in the game. In the game, despite how many people you kill along the way, Joel is clearly a man so desperate for an idealized vision of stability that he’ll weed out any threat to it. It’s hard to watch him show his true colors as his relationship with Ellie grows closer and not see an ounce of that anywhere on the show, especially when you know that’s what the story will ultimately depend on.
Watching The Last of Us is a lot like going back and playing the game again. It’s extremely obvious about its influences, like The Road and Children of Men, and it capably mimics them, but that’s about it. The somber opening is still devastating, and it’s still quite compelling to follow Joel and Ellie’s journey to understanding each other as they’re pursued by soldiers and screaming mushroom zombies. I wish there was more to it than a re-enactment of the game with new faces playing the same roles (certainly skillfully). Perhaps the show will get deeper later in the nine-episode series, but the game’s beat-for-beat remake worries me that it won’t have anything new to say that the game hasn’t already.