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Why The Last of Us is already the best video game-to-TV adaptation ever (and it’s not close)

Tom Falite

Gamers over the years have had quite the love-hate relationship with TV and film adaptations of their most beloved video game franchises.  They are all too familiar with the countless examples of great games being reduced to laughable flops by TV/film execs’ poor decision making. Big Hollywood studios have made an aggravating habit of casting aside the essence and soul of original game stories in favor of shameless, cheesy cash grabs, most of which turn out to be commercial and critical nightmares.  

Every so often a video game adaptation shows a lot of promise, but ends up letting down fans of the original in spectacular fashion. Netflix’s fantasy series The Witcher is a perfect example of this.  It started off with an exciting and engaging first season, but then deviated from the source material so drastically that OG fans were offended and alienated; worse yet, new fans were simply unenthused. 

The recent film adaptation of Naughty Dog’s Indiana Jones-esque adventure series, Uncharted, was particularly egregious in this regard.  They secured a star-studded cast, a massive budget, top-notch CGI, grand set pieces… what could possibly go wrong?  The answer is a lot.  All of those appealing ingredients were wrapped up in a fragmented, contrived narrative with hollow and uninteresting dialogue, character development, and supporting cast. The magic of the source material was completely lost. Watching Tom Holland swing around loads of CGI environments may have been fun to look at for the average viewer, but even that is nothing the MCU hasn’t already shown us plenty of.

There are some instances of video game adaptations that were critical flops, but still manage to maintain a certain level of cult following regardless.  Some include the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter films of the 90’s, the more recent “live-action” Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu, and the slew of Resident Evil adaptations that inexplicably appear year after year.

Clearly, a video game adaptation that delights fans and critics alike is quite a rare entity – and it seems to me that HBO’s The Last of Us just might be the dual threat that we’ve all been waiting for.  Even though we’ve barely reached the halfway mark of the first season, here are the reasons why I think The Last of Us (TLOU for short) already deserves the title of best video game-to-TV adaptation yet.  And no, it’s not close.

The casting is perfect.

Every time I see Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie on screen together, I’m in awe of how purely they capture the look and feel of their characters.  Bella Ramsey is swiftly proving to be an extremely talented up-and-coming actor, and this is just the latest in the list of smash hits that Pedro Pascal has been involved with.  It joys me to see these two Game of Thrones alums share the spotlight, and I can’t wait to see how their on-screen relationship grows.  It’s also worth noting Nick Offerman’s mesmerizingly heartbreaking performance as Bill in Ep. 3, and the great decision to cast Merle Dandridge as Marlene (she was the voice actor for Marlene in the game, way back in 2013).  Going forward, I have no reason to expect a dip in quality in the casting department.

It’s HBO.

This one should speak for itself.  HBO has been a titan of TV ever since the days of The Sopranos and The Wire, and in more recent years they’ve housed cultural touchstones like Euphoria, The White Lotus, and the juggernaut Game of Thrones franchise.  Even in the ever-growing streaming ecosystem, HBO Max has stood its ground and provided top-rated entertainment for millions; it should go without saying that being a part of the HBO catalogue comes with a certain exposure and prestige that few other services can boast.  Add massive production and marketing budgets to the mix as well, and TLOU is set up for success.

Most important of all, it’s faithful to the source material.

The crowning achievement of this adaptation of TLOU so far is how it perfectly nails the look, feel, and essence of the original game experience.  The tone and art style seem as though they’ve been ripped straight from the game, and fans of the original wouldn’t have it any other way.  For starters, prosthetic makeup designer Barrie Gower (known for his stellar prosthetic work on HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series and Game of Thrones) was brought in to recreate the different stages of infected, including the haunting “clickers” introduced in Ep. 2 (fans of the game will know that’s nothing compared to what the characters will eventually run into).

It gets better: Neil Druckman, the original creator of the story and game, is running the show alongside the immensely talented Craig Mazin (known for his highly praised writing/producing on Chernobyl), so OG fans and new viewers alike can rest assured that the series is in good hands.  When a deviation is made from the original story, it only serves to enhance the narrative; it was great to get more insight into Bill and Frank’s relationship, and the concept of the cordyceps being connected through the ground is an interesting inclusion that adds to the show’s motifs of connection and working together (something that most of humanity wasn’t able to do very well).

In summation, it’s easy to see why gamers and TV watchers should be excited to follow Joel and Ellie on their journey for these next few weeks.  I’m hopeful that the success of this series will cause a shift in the industry, allowing for more well-made and faithful video game adaptations to reach a larger audience.