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The Last of Us: How the Show Is Changing Video Game Adaptations

The Last of Us premiered to astounding popularity on HBO. It has achieved surprising success in a genre that more often flops than flies. The world of video game adaptations is a risky one for television and film producers. A lot of us can probably name more bad television shows that were based on video games than we can name good ones. But The Last of Us has managed to prove it’s still possible to make a riveting television series using a game as your source material. There was a lot of anxiety when it was announced but The Last of Us is changing the way people see video game adaptations.

And it’s not happening by accident. The Last of Us is unique in that it was well-sculpted for an adaptation even before it got the opportunity. The heavily narrative style of the game makes it a prime choice to bring to Hollywood. And the pandemic gave its subject matter a touching boost of relevancy. But The Last of Us doesn’t have to be unique. There were a lot of artistic choices that went into creating the show, proving that it is changing the world of video game adaptations.

Video game adaptations are always a risky business. Whenever a Hollywood producer sets their eyes on a popular game, the fans start to get nervous. There’s always the chance that someone can take one of your favorite stories and make it look terrible in front of millions of people. It’s happened plenty of times before. The Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat movies both tried to bring a compelling drama to their IPs when all we wanted was a bunch of super-powered fighters beating the tar out of each other. Doom somehow couldn’t make its 90 minutes of story worth the wait for its five minutes of faithful, first-person action at the end. And the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie should be put into some kind of museum for terrible films.

Related: Will The Super Mario Bros. Movie Save Video Game Adaptations for Nintendo?

A lot of these movies were terrible simply due to terrible filmmaking. Many of them weren’t true to their source material, or shoehorned the plot into a strange, low-budget world that might have been made by a kindergartner. And don’t get us started on director Uwe Boll. That man is probably responsible for giving the genre a bad name in the first place. In his adaptation of Postal, he had 9/11 jokes, women in bikinis with Hitler mustaches, and George Bush launching nukes at China. Need we say more?

Still, there have been strange exceptions to the rule. The Resident Evil films were quite popular in the early 2000s, despite them having almost nothing to do with the actual video games. It seems to be a common theme amongst this type of film; whether they be good or bad, they are often untrue to the material that was supposed to inspire them. The creators of the Paramount+ Halo series seemed almost proud to declare they have never played the games. And they’ve been successful in alienating a large part of the Halo fan base, though the show has still been renewed for another season.

The Last of Us remains so successful because it’s so true to its original IP. The first episode of the series was almost a shot-for-shot remake of the first hour of the game. And that’s what the fans want. People enjoy the series because the video game got so much right in the first place, narratively speaking. There’s no need to change anything or try to tell your own story with it because it’s not meant to be remade. The creative skill comes with adapting the source material into a new medium. That’s why they’re called adaptations.

Related: 10 Video Games HBO Needs To Adapt After Last of Us

The best thing creators of The Last of Us could have done was try to keep things the same. It’s important when adapting an IP to respect the source material. You have to hit the right notes when creating the narrative. Otherwise, you’ll tell the fans you’re giving them one title and when they come to see the finished product, you’ll be handing them another.

The Last of Us also made an excellent choice in getting its original creator involved. Having Neil Druckmann involved in both writing and directing the show, gives the whole project a deep connection to the source material, and preserves the respect for authorship that any adaptation should have. It’s an added bonus for this particular show since this video game was created with such a focus on storytelling. It belongs to that genre of role-playing games that focus more on its narrative than it does on the skill of playing the game — not to say that the game isn’t challenging of course. But you could almost watch the cut scenes edited together and get that same experience of watching a movie.

But what makes The Last of Us really go above and beyond in video game adaptations, is its commitment to making the game real. When watching the series, you can tell there was a lot of work put into creating the costumes and environments that look so much like what players remember from the game. The makeup for the infected is so well done, and the settings are extremely detailed. And no one will dispute that the actors have been perfectly selected. Pedro Pascal is essentially playing a combination of his characters from Narcos and The Mandalorian. And Bella Ramsey seems to be playing an expanded role similar to how we saw her in Game of Thrones. A lot of attention has been paid to crafting The Last of Us both artistically and ethically, and to adapt a video game well, you need both.



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