Some spoilers for the first episode of The last of us and the game is ahead.
Adapting a beloved story from one medium to another is a tricky challenge. Certain aspects must inevitably change. Things that work in a novel might not work in a movie, and telling a rhythm-for-rhythm game in a TV show doesn’t make much sense. Even when it’s such a cinematic game as The last of us.
Thanks in part to some of the different paths it takes, HBO’s adaptation of the 2013 game is off to a great start. The cast and crew absolutely nailed the first episode, in my book. They hit the story beats they needed while changing things up enough to surprise fans of the game and, at least in some places, make the narrative work better in another medium.
The cold open is a scene from a 60s talk show, which is immediately a new twist. A scientist, played by the wonderful John Hannah, sets the record straight by explaining what the cordyceps fungal infection can do (take over the mind and bodily functions of its host) and how it could possibly affect humans. It couldn’t affect us without global warming, so good job, humans!
We go back to 2003, ten years before the game opened, and get a really great sequence with Joel (Pedro Pascal), his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and Sarah. We see part of Sarah’s daily existence in the hours leading up to the outbreak. It’s a clever way to contextualize one’s life and well worth spending about 15 minutes before all hell breaks loose.
Again, not to spoil too much, but the show hits the key plot points. The most important scene of this part of the episode is almost exactly the same as in the game and some other moments are reproduced shot by shot, but so far there are many changes.
Sarah, for example, does not discover the infected when the French window of her house is broken. Instead, she walks into a neighbor’s house and encounters one. Also, Joel isn’t home at the time, which puts her in more danger.
I won’t break down all of the deviations the episode makes from the game. I think the show reframes the beef that Joel and Tess (Anna Torv) have with Robert in a way that more logically moves the overall story forward. Their first encounter with Ellie (Bella Ramsay) is totally different, as is how we first understand why her survival is so vital.
Many reviews I’ve read indicate that HBO and the creatives mix what they need and thrive in this world in new ways. Changing the way infection spreads from spores to fungi, for example, means actors don’t have to wear masks in certain scenes.
I’m especially looking forward to the much-loved episode which focuses on Bill and Frank, a relationship that’s only stated in-game in the environmental storytelling, a note, and Bill’s reaction to it. Deviating from Joel and Ellie’s story to tell another in this universe – something that wouldn’t be possible for the game – is an exciting change.
Adapting a popular work into another medium does not mean devoutly telling the exact same story. In this case, the writers and producers had to condense a 15-hour game into a 10-hour TV season. But that aside, adaptations are almost always more compelling when they stray a bit from the source material.
In Nothing lasts eternallythe novel that die hard is based on, the protagonist is Joe Leland, a retired NYPD detective who goes to a Christmas party at the office tower where his daughter works. Leland’s wife died at this point. The movie swapped Leland for a younger, active cop and hosted the party at his wife’s office instead. It’s safe to say that these changes worked for the best.
In the novel which Who Framed Roger Rabbit is based on, Roger is murdered early on. A faithful adaptation would never have given us that classic team-up of Roger and Eddie Valiant. While I love Tom Bombadil, cramming him into the Lord of the Rings movies would have slowed the pace of an already epic saga. And if The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The little Mermaid had been told exactly in their most famous film versions, they would not have been suitable for children.
Similarly, a movie that adapted exactly one of the main Mario games would quickly fall flat. There’s not enough story to hang a feature film on. I liked the first one sonic the hedgehog movie, which is nothing like any of the games, and I’m interested to see how the Gran Turismo the film shakes, given that it’s about someone who is very good at these games becoming an actual race car driver. For what it’s worth, I had a great time with the Unexplored movie too, although it broke together elements of several games in this series.
All this to say that creatives have many reasons to make changes while adapting a work to another medium. It doesn’t always work (many video game film adaptations aren’t exactly great), but things can’t always stay exactly as they were in the source material.
There is no point in getting too valuable for an existing property that is suitable for another medium. If you want an experience exactly the same as Naughty Dog’s game, you can just play The last of us.
The show may not live up to your expectations and turn out to be disappointing. I hope not, especially after the quality of the premiere, but the quality of the show will not negatively impact the legacy of the game. The original incarnation The last of us (or the PS5 remake) will always be the same thing you love and can always come back to. No one, not even HBO, can take it away.
I’m all for this new version of racing, though. I’m counting the hours until episode two.
The last of us airs on HBO and HBO Max at 9 p.m. ET on Sundays.
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