Translating the entertainment value of an interactive medium like video games to a passive one like that of television is a Herculean effort. There are a few shows that succeeded in this task, namely Netflix’s “Arcane” and “Castlevania.” (I’ll also concede that the “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” movies are kitschy fun in retrospect). Still, many prior video game adaptations to the screen have suffered from uninteresting characters and stories. However, through the initial four of nine episodes available at the time of this review, HBO’s new drama series “The Last of Us” challenges commonly held notions of what is possible from an adaptation of this kind, from its instant mass appeal to how seamlessly it translates the language of video games to film. Also, it’s scary!
The premise of human society collapsing due to infection has been a familiar dystopian and horror fiction trope for decades and a fragment of popular consciousness for even longer. “The Last of Us” delivers a fresh iteration on this formula with cordyceps, a fungal virus triggered by global warming, which invades and parasitizes the bodies of its hosts. This sci-fi pseudo-realist explanation is mainly a vehicle for a zombie outbreak. Still, the horrific implications of this type of infection are well-realized in the show. For example, the zombies share a fungal hive mind, spores protrude from their mouths and eyes, and pileus caps from the heads of more severely infected victims. One of the most horrifying elements of the show’s undead is their uncanny resemblance to humans, even though they are only a facsimile of life, complex individuals reduced to thoughtless husks. Equally terrifying is the condition of human society. Survival necessitates a brutal military state, conveyed through scenes of helmeted soldiers killing and brutalizing innocent civilians. Those who resist authoritarian rule descend into looting and gang warfare. This depiction of zombies succeeds because they feel oddly innocent. They are not human but are as alive and conscious as our morally compromised human characters, and the show asks us to consider who deserves survival.
“The Last of Us” follows the story of Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a survivalist living under martial law in a Boston settlement, taking viewers on his journey to protect a girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), whose immunity to cordyceps infection makes her the last hope of humanity. Pascal does a solid job as the stoic, calloused antihero, but Ramsey is the reason to keep watching. Her portrayal of a teenager thrust into the mantle of worldly responsibility, who learns the symbiotic beauty and horror of the outside world and slowly warps in its presence, is enthralling. Ellie is a narrative vessel for the viewer; we share in her questions, her frustrations, and her terror at the unknown threats of this strange world. Interestingly, the viewer’s alignment with Ellie is reversed from the 2013 video game, as the player piloted Joel and inhabited his perspective throughout; where Joel’s view seemed more somber and ruinous, Ellie’s is voraciously curious and hopeful.
“The Last of Us” arguably finds its greatest strength in its slow pacing, allowing the viewer to settle into the mundanity of everyday life, which serves as a prelude to flashes of horror. Though there are moments of visceral brutality throughout, the most profound beats of the show are wordless and quietly dreadful. A museum lies vacant, desiccated by petrified fungus, letting us question the hubris of celebrating the history of a society erased. A formerly bustling Boston is liminal and absent, reclaimed by foliage in a grand display of eco-brutalism. Joel and other weary wage laborers lug infected corpses, dispatched en masse by the government, into a raging fire pit. In these moments, the viewer considers how humdrum this bizarre reality seems to its inhabitants, and how the viewer’s current routines are only half-remembered by Joel and others like him. This dichotomy makes the world of “The Last of Us” feel disconcertingly real.
There’s been much fanfare, according to The Independent, that “The Last of Us” is a critically and commercially successful video game adaptation, a distinction thought impossible to achieve, per The Guardian. The difficulty is not because video games have poor stories, but because video games convey them through interactivity. Video games can employ mechanical difficulty to build a tone of desperation and isolation (like in “Dark Souls”) or mechanical ease to empower the player in the narrative (like in “Doom Eternal”); they can use limited resources to make their narratives scary (like in “Resident Evil”), reset player progress to make achievements feel futile (like in “Outer Wilds”) or present a vast world the player can explore freely to cultivate a feeling of adventure and wonder (like in “Breath of the Wild”). The difficulty with adapting video games is that film and television are inherently noninteractive; we can empathize with the characters and embody their perspectives, but we cannot fully immerse ourselves in their worlds or control their actions like we can in video games. In this regard, “The Last of Us” succeeds because its 2013 source material, like most of the game developer Naughty Dog’s output, is deeply cinematic. While mechanical storytelling is still present, the game is linear, and its scripted events and significant story beats happen in pre-rendered films (“cutscenes”) rather than gameplay. “The Last of Us” works well as an adaptation because the game already utilized film form.
Important to note is the show’s third episode, “Long, Long Time,” which features striking guest performances by Nick Offerman (Bill) and Murray Bartlett (Frank) as a gay couple living a quiet, secluded life amid the apocalypse. In a show thus far oscillating between thrill and longing, an emotional rollercoaster that stokes melancholy in its viewers and characters but never draws tears, “Long, Long Time” is wonderfully lachrymose. It revels in weepy sentimentalism, a beautiful love story narratively cloistered from the rest of the characters and plot. This episode will only grow more profound as the show’s oeuvre expands—its message, that love can flourish amidst an unremittingly barren world, will make it among the most essential in the series.
“The Last of Us” has thus far defied the odds and will only continue to, given its enormous positive reception, excellent choice of source material, and obvious passion poured into the performances, set design, and direction, according to Metacritic. It challenges the popular beliefs of what is possible with adaptation and continues to raise the bar for artistic expression in the streaming age. I will continue to follow Joel and Ellie’s story with bated breath over the next six weeks—let’s watch together!