Like 4.7 million other people, I tuned in to watch HBO’s broadcast of The Last of Us, the television adaption of Naughty Dog’s hit post-apocalyptic zombie game. Lots of people have written of the similarities and differences between the game and the show, and there’s really nothing more to be said about them; instead, I want to talk about how a show so rooted in the fandom of its source material can pay homage to that material without feeling lazy, condescending, or cringe. We know this feeling well (us video game fans): from Doom’s (2005) infamous first-person sequences and the lackluster storylines of something like Mortal Kombat (2021), to the corny jokes and downright disrespectful handling of their source material (I’m looking at you Super Mario Bros), video game adaptations have a horrible legacy. So, when I watched The Last of Us and got to the part where Joel and Tommy arrive to save Sarah from an infected Mrs. Adler, I was struck with a sense of reverence I’ve never felt with a video game adaptation before.
Let me explain.
After a protracted (though not unwelcome) amount of time spent with Sarah, we finally begin the climactic opening from the video game we all know and love: the one in which Sarah is rushed into Joel’s car with Tommy to ultimately meet her tragic end. As we know, The Last of Us is a third-person survival horror game—we see almost everything from behind the main character’s back. In this instance, as with the video game, Sarah is the protagonist—we follow her, shaky cam and all. Then, in a seamless transition, Sarah is thrust into the back of Joel’s truck and we (the audience) are made to view this ride through the high-octane, cramped, and terrifying first-person point-of-view. This is not Doom, either; this is natural, this makes sense, this is that heart-pumping feeling video games are meant to evoke. Unlike so many other video game adaptations that seem to try too hard to blend their cinema roots with that of their interactive source material, the team behind The Last of Us is able to make a subtle nod to video games.
Subtlety is the name of the game; it’s what all other adaptations lack. Later, we come to what sold me on the team behind HBO’s adaptation: the scene where Tommy becomes separated from Joel and Sarah. Here, divided by burning cars, the scene seems to play out as if it were designed for a video game by video game developers to give the characters a reason to split and for you, the player, to “go around” and learn the ropes. It’s so common an event that I almost expect it to happen when I’m playing a video game. In HBO’s The Last of Us, this scene made me smile, bringing forth memories of all those frustrating times I was forced to do the exact same thing Pedro Pascal was forced to do. Hell, Gabriel Luna, the actor playing Tommy in the show, even reacts silently to getting split up, as if he’s waiting for his queue to begin speaking his dialogue while the main character reacts to what just happened. It’s Joel who’s screaming for Tommy, but we don’t hear anything from Tommy until he pops into Joel’s field of view. Staged like a video game, but feeling as natural as a piece of quality cinema, I was giddy to see it all unfold.
Subtle, seamless, and without the annoying wink and nod that so many directors get wrong, the filmmakers behind HBO’s The Last of Us genuinely seem to not only care for their source material, but understand the importance of treating video games with the respect and dignity they are so often forced to live without.
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