Initially, one or two episodes in, I had my doubts, but after being treated with the early release of episode 5 over last weekend, I can say, said doubts are no more. Dare I consider the “adaptation curse” that has plagued Netflix recommended lists with the likes of The Witcher and Resident Evil to be broken?
Regardless of your take on TV and movie adaptations of video games, books, and other media, it would be a mistake to regard HBO’s The Last of Us as anything other than a gleaming success. While I can’t call it perfect, it still bears paying attention to why The Last of Us quenches a thirst so many of us seem to have acquired wandering what often feels like a complete desert of creative vision. Yeah, Disney and Netflix, I’m looking at you.
Ellie seems to have greater control of a dynamic that I’m used to seeing Joel command
For starters, The Last of Us cast doesn’t bring it down. It obviously doesn’t hurt to have Hollywood’s latest heartthrob lead your cast, but Pedro Pascal does seem to wear the role of hardened survivor Joel Miller comfortably, expressing complex emotions merely through stern looks in classic Joel Fashion. However, Joel’s canonically violent, dominant presence seems to be coming at the expense of Bella Ramsey’s take on the young Ellie. Slightly more sardonic and playful than I’d like, Ellie seems to have greater control of a dynamic that I’m used to seeing Joel command, removing both the sense of intimidation from Joel and Ellie’s sense of realism. Nevertheless, despite some rare weak acting, these are my only grievances. What’s better than the emotionally unavailable tough guy and the surrogate daughter he begrudgingly accepts only to learn to love and care for her more than anything? It’s a joy to experience all over again. On other fronts, Anna Torv’s portrayal of Tess (long-term partner of Joel) felt like the one I knew from the game. In episode three, we deviate from the main story to explore the survival of the outbreak from the perspective of Bill. Tender, poignant, and well-delivered, it’s here I think Nick Offerman delivers some of his best work (ever?) playing Bill as he explores love and affection, growing old after the outbreak with his partner, Frank.
The set pieces are detailed, expansive, and visually stunning, especially in Episode 5
Overall, all of the characters and their actors feel grounded. No one acts above their station, has any ludicrous innate abilities, or takes a dump on other characters for the sake of pushing some anti-establishment rhetoric. I think a lot of that gritty, grounded feel can be attributed to Craig Mazin, one of the main creators of the show. Working alongside Last of Us video game co-creator Neil Druckmann, both no longer have to design a story around video game mechanics. This has given them a host of creative freedoms that they have used to their absolute advantage. The set pieces are detailed, expansive, and visually stunning, especially in Episode 5. The infected – no longer an object around which a game for a player has to be designed – appear far more terrifying, and Druckmann and Mazin even use their extra creative real estate to flesh out the backstory of the outbreak with a foreboding, ominous feel.
However, what truly makes HBO’s The Last of Us a breath of fresh air is how it’s willing to adhere to its source material. Recreations of certain scenes are almost faultless, such as the beginning of the game which was just as heart-wrenching as the first time I played it. That’s not to say that deviations from the story haven’t been made – they absolutely have – but the ones that have been made feel fitting. And for those veterans of the franchise, the minor detail changes keep the viewer on their toes and prevent a stale viewing experience. It’s an adaptation, after all.
HBO has struck a winning formula here, and I remain hopeful for the rest of the season. As for Netflix, should they attempt another adaptation, I fear the big corp. Ts and Cs will squeeze out any worthwhile creative vision. But hey, here’s hopin’.