- Film & TV
- 03 Feb 23
Pursued by zombies on a treacherous cross-country mission, Paul Nolan still finds time to file his take on one of the year’s most hotly anticipated shows, HBO’s post-apocalyptic thriller The Last Of Us.
For the past 30 years, the phrase “video game adaptation” has been enough to make many TV and movie viewers break out in a cold sweat, prompted by a feeling of dread one might expect to feel in a zombie apocalypse, of the sort portrayed in HBO’s hotly anticipated The Last Of Us.
For the Gen X-ers among us, this hall of infamy is populated by a motley crew of grisly disasters, of which 1993’s Super Mario Bros. – starring Bob Hoskins as the titular plumber – is only the most egregious example. The appalling hit rate is made all the more mystifying by the fact that, so often, the source material appeared to lend itself to cinematic adaptation.
In the right hands, games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat – filled with memorable characters, great locations, brilliant music and gory violence – could, at a minimum, have produced competent thrillers, at best rip-roaring blockbusters. Instead, despite decent commercial success, the film adaptations became something of a punchline, excruciating exercises in high camp that seemed mortifying for all involved.
In 1994, Street Fighter hit cinemas with a limp effort that somehow crowbarred Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia and Kylie Minogue into the same cast, while the following year, Mortal Kombat found Christopher Lambert flailing as the supposedly menacing lightning god, Rayden (remarkably, Sean Connery was also offered the role, but wisely turned it down).
More recently, the cinematic atmosphere of stealth games like Assassin’s Creed and Hitman appeared perfect for the big screen treatment, but despite the best efforts of heavyweight acting talent – Michael Fassbender took the lead role in the former; Timothy Olyphant the latter – the films were again critically panned.
All of which meant that the duo of Chernobyl showrunner, Craig Mazin, and The Last Of Us game creator, Neil Druckmann, were swimming against the current in their undertaking for HBO. Raising the stakes was the fact the Stateside channel has built its reputation as a global leader in acclaimed TV; its capacity to absorb a critical flop on a major production is negligible.
Thus, Mazin and Druckmann’s successful adaptation is all the more admirable. Boasting the kind of lush production values that have become a staple for prestige TV, The Last Of Us is a compelling and often exhilarating apocalyptic thriller. Indeed, it goes a long way to capturing the depth, nuance and haunting feel that made its decade-old inspiration, developed by the Santa Monica-based Naughty Dog, one of the most successful and acclaimed games of all time.
Notably, the early episodes stick very closely to the game. In an apocalyptic US, a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps has turned most of the population into mindless zombies (insert your own gag about the Republican party here). On the day of the outbreak, we meet Texan Joel (Pedro Pascal, best known as Game Of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell), who is doing his utmost to keep his daughter Sarah safe.
Twenty years later, the virus has mutated to the point that it has created an array of blood-curdling creatures. Particularly putting the shits up the remaining populace are the Clickers, a grotesque monstrosity with super-powerful hearing and fungi-covered eyes. Think Man City under Pep Guardiola and you’re getting there.
Joel now works as a smuggler in Boston, which is under the control of a vicious government agency called FEDRA. The central story sees Joel tasked with taking teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey, who also appeared briefly in GOT as Lyanna Mormont) on a treacherous mission. With Ellie apparently immune to infection, Joel must transport her across country to revolutionary group the Fireflies, who hope to use her immunity to – cue a culture war standoff on Twitter – develop a vaccine.
Set across the four seasons of a year, the game version of The Last Of Us earned particular acclaim for the way it sketched out the humanity of its characters. On their travels, Joel and Ellie happened across notes and mementos that hinted at richly developed lives and relationships: glancing blows that provided an emotional dimension not often found in games.
Critics have already noted that this element is fully developed in an early storyline in the series. Bill (Nick Offerman) inadvertently traps another man called Frank (The White Lotus star Murray Bartlett), with the show implying the two eventually become lovers. It is a moving example of The Last Of Us’ central theme, namely that the resolve, defiance and durability of human beings is genuinely phenomenal, no matter how bleak or horrifying the circumstances.
Which is surely something for those of us in despair at Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifying draw to bear in mind. HBO reportedly spent upwards of a $100 million on the series, but before a scene has even been broadcast, it’s a gamble that has paid off handsomely, with the delirious advance reviews calling it an early contender for show of the year. Especially lauded have been the two lead actors, as well as Anna Torv – already celebrated for one of the best performances of the best 10 years, as psychology professor Wendy Carr in Mindhunter – who plays Joel’s smuggling partner, Tess. Equally raved-about have been some brilliantly intense set-pieces in the back half of the season.
It has also been unanimously declared as the best ever video game adaptation, even if the competition is not exactly hectic, as Mazin noted in a recent New Yorker profile of he and Druckmann. A David Fincher fanatic who cited the Coen Brothers’ masterful Cormac McCarthy adaptation, No Country For Men, as a major influence on the original game, Druckmann generally found there wasn’t much reciprocal appreciation for games in Hollywood, where the medium was often treated with outright disdain.
This was until he met Chernobyl mastermind Mazin, a fully fledged gaming enthusiast. If it seems strange to suggest there was the subtlest gaming influence on the dread-filled atmosphere of Chernobyl, it is perhaps worth noting that arguably the greatest video game level of all time, ‘All Ghillied Up’ from 2007’s Call Of Duty 4, was set in Pripyat, the abandoned city in the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation.
In The New Yorker, Mazin reflected on the litany of aesthetically disastrous game adaptations, including Resident Evil, another all-time classic that seemed readymade for the screen.
“I cheated – I just took the one with the best story,” said Mazin of his decision to get involved with The Last Of Us. “Like, I love Assassin’s Creed. But when they announced that they were gonna make it as a movie, I was like, I don’t know how! Because the joy of it is the gameplay. The story is impenetrable.”
More broadly, The Last Of Us again demonstrates the astonishing ability of Casey Bloys’ HBO to continually capture the zeitgeist. With the proliferation of Netflix and other streaming platforms over the past decade, it seemed as if the channel’s taste-making position was under mortal threat. But from True Detective and Game Of Thrones to The White Lotus, Succession and Euphoria, HBO’s relentless insistence on quality over quantity continues to give it a decisive edge over the competition.
When you consider that the channel first made a splash with The Larry Sanders Show fully 30 years ago, before going truly supernova with The Sopranos in 1999, it is some fucking achievement. And they’ve only gone and done it again with The Last Of Us – so buckle up for another epic thrill-ride.
• The Last Of Us is on Mondays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.
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