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The Last of Us TV series is a template for filmmakers on how to get game-to-live action adaptations right

The HBO action adventure zombie show starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey doesn’t try to change the spirit of the game; it just brings it a step closer to reality

Priyankar Patra Calcutta Published 23.03.23, 03:43 PM
HBO series The Last of Us starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey has been renewed for a second season.

HBO series The Last of Us starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey has been renewed for a second season.

One of the scariest moments in the television adaptation of The Last of Us happens in the cold open set in 1968. A scientist in a television talk show expresses that he isn’t as scared of a bacterial or viral infection as much as he is of a fungal outbreak. Fungus can control our brains and change the very nature of our existence, reducing us to savages. A fellow scientist on the talk show says that there's nothing to worry about us as the current conditions of the planet aren’t suitable for the evolution of fungi. But the question is raised — what if the earth was to get slightly warmer?

Of course, we’re all watching an action adventure zombie TV series. This isn’t real. But in a post-pandemic world, is this entirely unbelievable? The threat is established even before the story kicks in. Not just in the world of the game where an outbreak is about to happen, but also in the mind of viewers, who have the context of living through a pandemic.


The adaptation doesn’t try to change the spirit of the game, neither does it aim to make the game cooler or edgier. It just brings it a step closer to reality, grounding it with behaviours and scenes that for a brief time weren’t alien to us on our screens or the world around us.

The Last of Us: A near-perfect television show

When The Last of Us game first released on PlayStation 3 in mid-June 2013, reactions were positive across the board. Over the next year, with its remastered version and the additional downloadable pack, the audience for the game grew considerably. It was something new, something that drew non-gamers into the mix as well — an emotional action adventure story in the most cliched of zombie-apocalyptic worlds. In many ways, a glass ceiling was broken.

Since then, The Last of Us has been turned into a comic book series and a one-time stage musical. A live-action film adaptation was long in the works with original game director Neil Druckmann as the writer and Sam Raimi as the director / producer, but the project entered development hell soon after with Sony and Druckmann going head to head about creative inputs. Live action dreams weren’t too far away though. Fresh off his success of Chernobyl, ace writer and creator Craig Mazin started developing a television series based on the game. It’s not a strange choice for a project for Mazin, whose diverse portfolio of films and TV includes Chernobyl and Hangover. At least the vision is in good hands. With the announcement of internet daddy and saviour, Pedro Pascal, and Game of Thrones breakout star Bella Ramsey as the leads, the project finally took shape.

The television show is near perfect. It not only works as a standalone material sans any reference point, the show also builds on the existing world of the game without changing what worked the most for the game — the core story and the nitty-gritties around it. The HBO series is a textbook example of how to get adaptations right.

The emotional story within the adventure makes it more compelling

Pedro Pascal isn’t as built as Joel, the character he plays; neither does Bella Ramsey have the helpless innocence of Ellie on her face. But what both the actors have managed to do is embody the spirit of the original characters and add more layers with just their facial expressions and body language, a lot of which was lost behind the motion-capture game design. Similarly, the game was largely based around the bond and journey between Joel and Ellie. But the TV series, with the advantages of the episodic structure, is able to better contextualise — especially in the first few episodes — the spread of the infection, really going from character to character in vastly different scenarios and socio-economic realities and looking at how the infection affected them individually. This creates a sense of a larger threat that not only looms over the protagonist’s head but everyone else’s as well. But by making us emotionally closer to Joel and Ellie, it raises the stakes higher.

The emotional story within the adventure is what makes it more compelling. Joel, who lost his daughter the day of the outbreak — not to a clicker, but to a human who wasn’t ready to see beyond his duty — is clearly driven by trauma. Pain is all he allows himself to grow and move forward. Tasked to take a young girl, who he learns is immune to the infection, across the country to a scientific lab run by the Firefly, a rebel group, Joel finds a new purpose in life. While a lot of this was there in the game, the series explores these with more depth, going into the meat of the backstory and justifying every action with nuance. Ramsey’s Ellie, when first introduced, is a clean slate, and with every episode you know a little more about her — every information a little more heartbreaking than the one before. These emotional pillars of the characters shown in flashbacks and expository dialogues help the narrative evolve into a story for the ages.

Bill and Frank’s story: One of the most emotional episodes in recent television

In Episode 3 of the television show, two lone survivors, Bill and Frank, meet and fall in love and over the next few decades grow old together, taking care of each other. Their love story is tragic yet beautiful — the two finding a sense of belonging in a world where humans have turned against each other. On the last day together, the lovers get married, enjoy their last meal and walk into their bedroom for their eternal sleep. In the larger context of storytelling, Bill and Frank’s standalone episode may seem useless but it does give an insight into the psyche of the survivors, how they managed to live and the tragedy of the human condition — two old men in love, in desperate need of medical assistance, unable to take care of each other beyond a point.

Bill and Frank existed in the games. But Frank was just a strong mention and Bill was only a small part of their larger journey. Frank exists a lot more than spoken words in the adaptation. The choice to let Bill’s purpose in Joel’s journey remain intact while still largely changing his individual journey gave us one of the most emotional episodes in recent television.

Similar changes are there throughout The Last of Us TV series. The larger narrative, the characters and even the dialogues are kept intact. And these small changes or additions in emotional beats make the HBO show a compelling watch. For far too long, live action adaptations have either tried to stay too loyal to the games or gone completely in different directions that made them popular in the first place. Both approaches never worked.

Apart from The Witcher, also a television series that took its time into world building, not many game-to-live action adaptations have been successful. One doesn’t even need to look beyond Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Unchartered or Need for Speed to know that. Granted that the examples listed are all films and not television shows. Which raises the question — is the episodic format just a better medium for live action adaptations of games that are anyway 14-15 hours long in their storyline? Perhaps the medium of a two-hour film is too little time to encapsulate the larger expanse of the games.

Helmed by a bunch of directors from diverse backgrounds

But The Last of Us isn’t just successful because of its format. Mazin had help. While he wrote all the episodes, the direction team was a diverse mix of talented minds. Neil Druckmann, the game director, was co-writer for two episodes and director for one, apart from serving as the co-showrunner. British director, Peter Hoar, the man behind some of the most iconic episodes of Daredevil (apart from also directing Iron Fist and The Defenders, all for Netflix) directed the gut-wrenching Episode 3. Jeremy Webb, the man behind Elementary and The Umbrella Academy, and Liza Johnson, who directed Elvis and Nixon apart from helming episodes of the television adaptation of What We Do In The Shadows and The Sex Lives of College Girls, were also roped in to direct an episode each.

But the most interesting choices for directors were Jasmila Žbanić and Ali Abbasi, two film festival darlings who had never directed English language films or television before. This was both of their first attempts at directing television. Žbanić, who directed Kin, the episode where Joel reunites with his brother Tommy, is a Golden Bear winner (best film) at Berlin International Film Festival. She has also won at Rotterdam and her film Quo Vadis, Aida? won at BAFTAs, European Film Awards and was nominated for an Oscar.

Similarly, Abbasi, who directed the last two episodes of The Last of Us, had his first film shown at Berlin, while his next two films, Border and Holy Spider, were Cannes favourites. By including these two directors who come from not just diverse backgrounds but a distinctly different point of view, The Last of Us broadened its sensibilities to absorb a more non-mainstream approach in its craft and filmmaking.

Two of the four cinematographers of The Last of Us are women

The craft of filmmaking isn’t quite complete without the mention of cinematographers — two of the four cinematographers for The Last of Us series were women, a rarity even today. Apart from Eben Bolten, who has worked majorly between the UK and the US, the young Ksneia Sereda (who previously shot the Russian drama Beanpole), Nadim Carlsen (Abbasi’s constant collaborator) and Christine Maier (who previously worked with Žbanić) were roped in. With its crew hires, Mazin, either consciously or unconsciously, created a balanced gaze of its two protagonists.

Two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla came back as the composer, with additional tracks by . Similar to the game’s narrative, while the score remained largely the same, the additional scores added a sort of human relatability to it which made the adventure emotional, gripping, scary and yet worth it at the same time.

A television show or film’s success depends on the people behind it. What is it that they are bringing to the table apart from their skill? An unique perspective to things to elevate existing source material. Mazin and the team have done it again after Chernobyl. Now that The Last of Us series has been greenlit for a second season, it remains to be seen how long the balance between loyalty to the source material and newer perspectives can be maintained. But with Druckmann as the co-pilot, we can wait for another year or two in peace.

(The Last of Us TV series is streaming on Disney+Hotstar)

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