It’s no secret that developing video games and having them turn out to be great is an incredible challenge. An even bigger challenge though, seems to be taking a successful video game and adapting it into live action. Throughout the years we’ve seen many attempt it and they’ve rarely turned out good, let alone great. When it was announced the The Last Of Us was going to be receiving a live action series adaptation, I was excited for sure, as it’s one of my favourite video games of all time, but I was also equally sceptical, as I’ve seen adaptations fail more often than not. But after seeing all of season 1 of HBO’s The Last Of Us, I couldn’t be more satisfied with how it all turned out. There are some minor nitpicks for sure, but the series has managed to capture the tone of the game, the character drama and most of all the emotion that made The Last Of Us such a standout video game.
The story of The Last of Us takes place 20 years after a fungal outbreak has lead to the downfall of mankind caused by a spread of violent, zombie-like creatures known as the Infected. Much like the game, the series follows the journey of Joel, an aged but worldly smuggler and Ellie, a sharp-witted and sharp tongued young girl as they journey across America to reach a group rebelling against the military controlling the country known as the Fireflies. The Fireflies are rumoured to be working on a cure to the Cordyceps Brain Infection that’s been plaguing the world for the past 20 years and we quickly learn the Ellie may be the key to saving mankind, but first they need to get half way across the country. Along the way we get to see just how brutal this world can be, how much nature has started to take back, how people live in a world where the Infected are a constant threat and just how far humanity has fallen in the wake of an apocalypse.
One of the strongest aspects of this first season is that it’s going to be captivating to it’s audience regardless of how familiar they are with the source material. Much like HBO’s other massive hit show, Game of Thrones, which had millions of people tuning in every week for close to ten years, holding them on the edge of their seat even if they’d never picked up a single Song of Ice and Fire book, The Last Of Us season 1 is crafted in a way that this show is going to be absolutely huge for the masses and stays incredibly true to the structure of the first game which will also please fans of the original game because of how faithful its core plot remains.
Although the plot of the season largely follows the main story beats of the first game it does utilise a decent portion of its runtime in areas to expand on and tweak parts of the story and the characters too. We get to learn a little more about where the virus may have spread from and how, get to spend a little more time in the opening episode seeing what life was like before the world turned for the worse and even get a whole episode early on in the series that is made up almost entirely of original content and fleshes out the story of Bill and Frank, characters that played an overall minor part in the game. Here they are given the spotlight in one of the season’s lengthiest episodes to showcase how people went about surviving during the outbreak and it results in one of the season’s most emotional episodes and features Ellie and Joel very briefly. I loved that in the move to a new medium, it has allowed aspects of the game to be further fleshed out as well as brand new stories developed that add to the source material while staying true to the grounded tone of the series.
Because tone is a huge part in what makes The Last of Us have the impact it does. The world is dark, gritty and dangerous but also beautiful and lush and these juxtaposing components come together with some incredibly written characters to present a series that will be remembered as one of the best games of all time. As will this adaptation. It’s just as emotional as the game, the characters and performances are top notch, with special mentions going to Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay of course with their interpretations of Joel and Ellie, but also a lot of the side cast too such as Nick Offerman (Bill), Nico Parker (Sarah) and Merle Dandridge reprising her role of Marlene from the game having great performances whenever they were on screen.
I was also surprised by the numerous cameos that were featured within the season from actors that were in the original game too. We knew prior to release that Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson would feature in the series somewhere. I had expected it to be to the extent of Nolan North’s cameo in the Uncharted movie where they would appear in one shot and maybe have a line or two to say but was surprised to see them feature as important characters that appear throughout many scenes, and they’re not the only actors from the games that actually show up to play roles in the live action series.
A huge part of what I love from the world of The Last of Us is it’s music. The soundtrack from the two games is in near constant rotation on my music playlists as its these tracks, along with the amazing performances that made the games such an emotional hit for myself. And it’s not just the sad tracks, the score itself does a fantastic job at conveying a wide range of emotions and is actually quite tranquil, powerful and optimistic at times. This made me even more excited for the series when it was announced in the lead up to launch that composer Gustavo Santaolalla would be returning to score the live action series. The season uses arrangements right from the game and has additional music created by Santaolalla that further helps this adaptation be incredibly faithful to the sound and tone of the game. That opening theme song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
Having developers, Naughty Dog involved so heavily with the show has also clearly helped maintain the overall vision of the game. It would have been so easy for Hollywood to take the rights and make this into another infected zombie show, put out to attract the masses, but instead it makes it more about the drama, and the characters within the world. Having Neil Druckmann work alongside Craig Mazin to create the series seems to have helped maintain a vision and level of care that can be seen from the beginning of episode 1 through to the end of episode 9. The team at Naughty Dog also shared concept art and game assets with the creative team working on the series and it shows. Many of the sets and environments look like they were pulled straight out of the video game levels and they certainly use the most of that HBO budget. It looks absolutely fantastic all-round.
While the season is incredibly faithful to the main story beats from the game, and some scenes are straight 1:1 reproductions of scenes from the game right down to the shot framing and the script, there are some aspects that have been further tweaked, and some of these I liked more than others. As touched on earlier, some of these changes really enhance the story and characters, but there were some changes made that had me wondering why they were presented the way they were, when the changes seemed to take away some impact the same scene in the game conveyed. I was also quite surprised to see the series pull back quite a bit on featuring the Infected. Their threat is certainly ever present, given the world is the way that it is but they’re actually used quite sparingly on-screen, focusing primarily on the human impact in this world. There is one addition though that the series makes to Joel’s character late in the season that I absolutely loved and answers a question that I’ve had about him since I played the original game in 2013 and had me highly emotional as I watched.
The Last Of Us Season 1 is an absolute hit and should now be treated as the benchmark for video game live action adaptations going forward. It treats the source material and it’s characters with so much respect and I’m so glad it was HBO that picked up the series to provide it with the budget and resources a story like this really deserves. Much like the games, this series will be talked about and enjoyed for many years to come and it has me super excited for the next season, even though that one is going to be filled with so much more drama if it’s adapted as faithfully as this season was.
Screeners for all of season one provided by HBO for the purpose of this review.
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