Does HBO’s new hit series live up to the original?
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By Andrew Martinez Cabrera
For years, video game adaptations garnered the same fate as a thespian muttering “Macbeth” during a theatre production. The issue with adapting games to a new format is that a video game’s appeal relies on the medium’s most notable characteristic: gameplay. Restricting the viewer to a bystander position when they are used to controlling the character’s actions results in a feeling similar to watching your older sibling play on the Xbox while you impatiently wait for your turn.
Possibly the greatest reason for the success of HBO’s “The Last of Us” is that the original 2013 game, developed by Naughty Dog, already possessed a cinematic approach to its narrative. Brought to the small screen by Neil Druckmann, the original writer and creative director, and his new collaborating partner Craig Mazin, the adaptation of “The Last of Us” strives to deliver the same story for audiences new and old, naturally with deviations that are usually credited under Mazin.
Both versions of “The Last of Us” follow Joel, a hardened smuggler tasked with escorting a 14-year-old girl named Ellie across a post-apocalyptic America, swarmed by ‘infected’ fungal people and dangerous raiders. Although sounding cliche, what separates “The Last of Us” from the rest of those similarly spun apocalyptic tales is that the setting and situation are secondary. The true purpose of the game resides within the characters. For the original game, Druckmann constructs the story through the philosophy of “simple story, complex characters.” For the video game, it is the emotional resonance, the interactive agency when controlling Joel, and the blossoming connection that Joel and Ellie share which makes “The Last of Us” such a unique artistic experience. This is especially true when players get to spend time with the duo for 15 hours. The HBO series is granted a similar luxury of nine hours of watch time.
However, Mazin decides that those nine hours would be utilized elsewhere, giving more screen time to secondary characters from the original game rather than fleshing out Joel and Ellie's characters to new audiences. Side characters who only reveal themselves through cutscenes are given new life, and for the most part, these deviations are enjoyable. A notable example is in Ep. 3, which transforms a dull section of the game into a beautiful love story central to the core theme of “The Last of Us.”
As a result, Joel and Ellie are truncated to episode bookends. Mazin’s solution to not spending too much time with them is to tie it back to Joel. The emotional tether of “The Last of Us” is realizing that Joel, a father who lost his daughter in a tragic event, is slowly becoming a surrogate father to Ellie. Both are hurting people who struggle to open up after experiencing too much loss in the world. It is through each other that they reinvigorate each other’s humanity and capacities for love.
The issue in the HBO adaption is that Joel and Ellie, played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, do not get to stretch those emotional muscles all that much, as those scenes are treated as transitions to other stories. In trying to differentiate itself from the game, Mazin decides to focus on more than just the iconic duo and relies on established story beats to further evolve the relationship without doing any of the work.
In losing that valuable time to form that bond, Mazin has side characters become soapboxes that explain the themes of love to viewers rather than having it shown through action and motive. The loss of subtly is not just true of the secondary characters, but it is also true for Joel and Ellie. An example occurs in the first episode, where Joel has to defend Ellie from an armed soldier, much like the one who killed his daughter. Using that evocative visual adds some great subtext to Joel, carrying this belief that violence is a justifiable action in defending loved ones. Mazin, however, not believing in the audience, flashbacks to an earlier scene of Joel’s daughter dying to hone in on the already obvious point.
Furthermore, this is the only moment where Joel displays his imperfections. Pascal’s adaption of Joel ultimately is a cliché of a “tough dad who turns soft” rather than a three-dimensional human being with highs and lows. What’s worrying is that Joel’s brutal actions, which should be condemned, are not. Mazin doesn’t equate the violent reactions as a fault on Joel’s part, proving that Mazin fails to see why Joel is a selfish character in the long run. Lost in the HBO series is the probing of love's motives posed by Druckmann's video game, where his original Joel is clouded by subjective and selfish thoughts, serving as the game’s moral conundrum. Mazin offers Joel’s subjectivity as the show’s objective truth.
By stripping away TV Joel's brutalist outlook on life, reflected in his physical actions via gameplay - which is a subjective experience in itself - that important theme is lost in translation. I fear that Joel’s behavior at the very end of the season would be seen as impulsive rather than deliberate.
To quote one of the in-show groups, the Fireflies: “When you are lost in the darkness, look for the light.” Although not a terrible show, “The Last of Us” struggles to find its proper footing through its odd pacing which prevents characters from shining to their fullest potential. Mazin establishes his weak interpretations as the show’s mission statement, reducing Druckmann’s original characters, who were once complex and fully-realized characters, to exposition dumpers. HBO’s “The Last of Us” is trapped in the shadows of the original, struggling to find the light.
Madison Sciba '24,