‘The Last of Us’: A new test for video game adaptations
Los Angeles: Despite how exciting they are to play, video games rarely transition successfully to either the big or small screen; in fact, the crossover genre is rife with duds. However, the dystopian, zombie-filled HBO series The Last of Us, which debuted the next day overseas and on Sunday in the United States, might be about to end the curse.
With a score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, the series has already received a tonne of favourable reviews and is on track to become the streaming industry’s first big hit of 2023, ten years after the PlayStation original release of The Last of Us.
Game creator Neil Druckmann, along with Chernobyl screenwriter Craig Mazin, helped develop the narrative for television. The story remains faithful to the original Naughty Dog title, following the unlikely duo of demoralised smuggler Joel and spirited teenager Ellie, whom he must protect as the planet’s potential last hope against a fast-moving zombie fungus.
The nine-episode season – in which Joel is played by Narcos and Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal and Game of Thrones actor Bella Ramsey portrays Ellie – is set in a post-apocalyptic America ruled by a military dictatorship. The stakes of the series’ success are high for HBO Max, which just raised its US subscription fee from $14.99 to $15.99 for an ad-free monthly package.
HBO “clearly remains the gold standard for original series, but its parent company (Warner Bros. Discovery) is at a crossroads in terms of how much it’s willing to spend on projects,” said John Cassillo, an analyst with TVREV.
Adaptations of blockbuster video games tend not to do well when they are turned into movies or television series. On a list drawn up by Box Office Mojo, only five films in this genre have surpassed $400 million in earnings. The top one, Warcraft (2016) – which took in $439 million worldwide – doesn’t figure in the top 250 on the overall box office list.
Other rare successes include Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) starring Angelina Jolie, and more recently Netflix’s Emmy-winning animated series Arcane, set in the League of Legends universe. “What makes video games entertaining doesn’t always make movies/shows entertaining, and vice versa,” said Cassillo.
The post-apocalyptic premise of The Last of Us, he continued, “taps into a popular theme even outside of gaming, and HBO has a long history of success with dramatic programmes.” Cassillo predicted that the series would succeed where prior video game adaptations had failed if it “uses the backdrop of the game’s plot to convey a compelling character tale (that could exist even independent from the game).”
In an interview with The New York Times, Druckmann said the most important thing in adapting the game was “to keep the soul of it,” not necessarily every scene. “What makes the show are the characters, the philosophical arguments of, ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ And, ‘How big is your tribe that you’re going to care for?’” he said.
Many more video game adaptations are in the pipeline, including a new Super Mario Bros film, a third installment in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and a Gran Turismo movie, as well as a Netflix animated series based on Tomb Raider.