A scene from HBO’s The Last of Us. Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO
HBO’s The Last of Us expands on the lore of the game all while remaining a faithful live-action adaptation to the source material.
Very few people were shocked when HBO announced it was working on a live-action adaptation of The Last of Us back in 2020. The pairing made sense. A premium television network lauded for its past and present prestige TV was matched with a video game considered as one of the greatest of all time because of its ambitious, deep, and immersive storytelling. Maybe this would be the moment a live-action adaptation of a video game would finally get it right. After all, how could you fuck up a small-screen retelling of a game that already has a narrative perfect for TV?
Well, for the devoted fans that might’ve been worried, rest assured; HBO’s The Last of Us is a faithful adaptation to the source material, showing how the game’s story works whether you’re familiar with the franchise or not — all while expanding on the lore of the story in subtle but significant ways that help it stands on its own.
This is evident from the first episode, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” which opens with Dr. Newman, an epidemiologist, expressing concern over a future where a fungal outbreak could occur, during an appearance on a 1968 talk show. Speaking with a fellow epidemiologist on a talk show in 1968, Newman explains: “Fungi seem harmless enough, but many species know otherwise because there are some fungi that do not seek to kill but to control… Viruses can make us ill but fungi can alter our very minds.
“There’s a fungus that infects insects, it gets inside an ant, travels through its circulatory system to the ant’s brain and then floods it with hallucinogens, thus bending the ant’s mind to its will.”
Initially, he’s dismissed by a fellow epidemiologist and the host of the talk show, with the former arguing that although such a fungal infection is real (and not just for the sake of this series — it’s a phenomenon that actually exists) it isn’t for humans.
“True,” Dr. Newman responds, “fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees. And, currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to be able to withstand higher temperatures. But what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world was to get slightly warmer?”
From there, Newman’s sentiment is taken more seriously, so much so that the host changes his tone, worriedly wondering what would happen if such an infection that has no cures, treatments, or preventatives began to take over humans. “We lose,” Newman states, leaving everyone in attendance quiet, foreshadowing the apocalypse that’s to come when the outbreak begins 35 years later in 2003.
It’s here that The Last of Us TV series somewhat carves its own path from the source material. Like the latter, it’s a fungus — a mutated microorganism known as cordyceps — that causes society’s downfall in the former, with people consuming enough food with traces of cordyceps (thanks to crops contaminated with fungus) to become infected and lose their minds. Where it differs however is in one of the ways it’s spread. Where the game showed how the infection spreads either by being bitten or inhaling airborne spores from dead infected, the TV show gets rid of the airborne spores and replaces that with tendrils, making the fungus a more connected network that makes it even more dangerous than it’s presented in the game.
Show creators Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us video game) said that they wanted to make the infection as based in science as possible for the series, which works in its favor. Alluding to real-world issues like climate change, as well as characters making digs at the government’s failure at addressing the outbreak (which felt like an intentional nod to countries like our very own U.S. and its mishandling of COVID-19), grounds the series in a real and relatable way, as we watch main characters Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) travel across the U.S. in hopes of creating a vaccine that the latter may be key to.
But first, the pair have to get used to each other, and Pascal and Ramsey perfectly capture the surrogate father-daughter dynamic of Joel and Ellie. They’re clearly pained by trauma caused by the outbreak; both have lost people dear to them (like the game, the first episode of the series finds Joel losing his daughter, Sarah, to a fatal gunshot wound) and have had to do things that they probably never would’ve done before. As a result, they act out in their respective ways; Joel is cold and detached, Ellie is annoying and sarcastic. The back-and-forth between the two provides a necessary comic relief throughout the series, as their battles with the infected and uninfected jeopardize their survival.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is what defines the Last of Us. Just like the game, the series’ most emotional and heart wrenching moments are associated with them. But where the series slightly excels over the game is in its exploration of secondary characters, and giving them an opportunity to have their moments, too. It reimagines Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank’s (Murray Bartlett) relationship as something much more beautiful and tender, and provides a deeper (albeit brief) backstory for brothers Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), as well as Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the leader of the Fireflies militia group. These are characters that fans of the game didn’t get as much time with, and it’s great to see them be a part of some of the show’s best moments.
The Last of Us succeeds as a live-adaptation for both faithfully following the source material and rejuvenating it in interesting ways, resulting in what is arguably video gaming’s first prestige TV moment, and what will surely be one of the year’s best TV shows, too.
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