HBO's 'The Last of Us' and the Art of Adaptation

The Last of Us Video Game - H 2014
<p>The Last of Us Video Game - H 2014</p>   |   Naughty Dog
Is it better to tell an original story within this world, or to stick to the game as closely as possible?

Joel and Ellie are heading back to PlayStation consoles in May with The Last of Us Part II, but they’ll also be taking their battle for survival to HBO in the near future. The Hollywood Reporter broke the news Thursday that the writer and creative developer of the award winning PlayStation video game series, Neil Druckmann, is teaming with Craig Mazin, the creator of the award-winning HBO limited series, Chernobyl (2019), to bring The Last of Us to the small screen. The 2013 game, which went on to become one of the best-selling titles of all time, is a survival horror-action game that follows a smuggler named Joel as he escorts a teenage girl, Ellie, across the a post-apocalyptic United States after an outbreak of a mutant Cordyceps fungus has left most of humanity transformed into creatures known as the Infected.

Arriving at the height of the zombie media resurgence, The Last of Us pushed the subgenre forward with its emotionally resonating storyline and surprising character developments and attention to detail. The game has already been praised for its cinematic qualities pertaining to its plot, design, and vocal cast led by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, leading fans to wonder what more a series can do for the property, particularly within a subgenre that has largely exhausted itself on the small screen thanks to The Walking Dead and zombie shows that followed in its wake.

What’s most surprising about the development of The Last of Us on HBO is that the series will cover the events of the first game, with future seasons potentially adapting the upcoming Part II. While we’ve yet to see video game adaptations take off on television, in film it’s rare to see an adaption stick to the story of the game. That point has been one of contention among video game fans with sides being taken as to whether its better to tell an original story within that world, given that the game already exists, or to stick to the game as closely as possible since that’s what made the property popular in the first place. The Last of Us is the second property from Sony and Naughty Dog to be greenlit, following the long in development of the feature film Uncharted, which is finally set to begin filming this year with director Ruben Fleischer and stars Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg and Antonio Banderas. Unlike the proposed story for The Last of Us, Uncharted will tell an original narrative that fits in and serves as a prequel to the four games, supposedly working around the prequel elements introduced within two of those games. There was certainly room for The Last of Us series to take a similar approach by weaving the show in between the events of the games, given the years that pass between the game’s opening and the main quest of Joel and Ellie, and more years taking place between the first and second installment. And HBO has certainly found success in cross-media stories with Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen serving as a sequel to the graphic novel, rather than an adaptation or sequel to the film. But for now, it looks like The Last of Us will be following the familiar path of the game.

For all the debate over whether an interactive experience can have the same pull as a feature or series, we’ve yet to see it attempted. Video game adaptations Warcraft (2016), Assassin’s Creed (2016) Tomb Raider (2018), Detective Pikachu (2019) and the most recent, Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), have incorporated elements of the game(s) while also including significant deviations to varied critical and box office results. Other adaptations, like the long-running Resident Evil series (2002-2016), Prince of Persia (2010), and Rampage (2018) have very little in common with their console namesakes. We don’t know if a faithful adaptation will work because we’ve yet to see it. While obviously novels and video games are a very different form of media, they are both interactive experiences, and if faithful adaptations of the written word can be as successful as they’ve proven to be, then perhaps video game adaptations can be too.

The key to The Last of Us as a series is to provide a different experience than one would get from playing the game, while appealing both to those who are gamers and those who aren’t. The same can be said about appealing to those who are fans of the zombie genre and those who are sick of it, making the Infected their own unique threat with rules we haven’t seen play out a few dozen times. Ultimately, it will be the characters, the additional interactions they share that weren’t part of the game, those moments in-between the big plot points that will give the show its weight and reason for existing. The effort to even attempt to make The Last of Us into a series is far more experimental than it will likely be given credit for at this stage, but nonetheless we are entering a bold new territory of video game adaptations. Things could go wrong, but at least with Druckmann and Mazin on board we’ve got our best-case chance at survival.