Adapting much-loved stories for new mediums can be a risky business. Get it right (Game Of Thrones) and you’re laughing all the way to the bank. Get it wrong, or change something in a way the fans don’t like (Sonic), and it can turn very nasty, very quickly. The team behind The Last Of Us seem to know this. Their megabucks TV series of the acclaimed, post-apocalyptic video games rarely strays from its source material.
If you’re unfamiliar, here are the basics: Joel, a ruthless but goodhearted smuggler played by Pedro Pascal, is living in the zombie-infested end-of-days that has killed nearly everyone he’s ever known. Against his better judgement, he agrees to escort 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the now-barren wasteland of America, dodging desperate survivors who will rape, murder and even eat them if it suits. Why would Joel attempt this dangerous mission? Ellie is immune to the zombie virus, and delivering her to the right doctors could result in a precious vaccine.
As a concept, it’s nothing new. The Walking Dead perfected gritty pandemic horror more than a decade ago. And with Joel’s arc – grumpy loner softened by ebullient youngster – Pascal is retreading similar ground to his Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian. The whole thing smells like a shameless cash-in, selling the same content to the same people. And yet co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, the latter of whom also wrote the games, have managed to make the familiar feel fresh.
Take the first episode, for example. Large parts match the game shot for shot, but the bits that don’t give it new relevance. There’s a prologue in which scientists mock the thought of a world-ending outbreak – cringe-inducing when you remember our own government’s woefully unprepared response to coronavirus. And later in episode two, we flashback to Indonesia where scientists first discover the disease. If you watched Contagion during lockdown (and many did), you’ll spot some interesting parallels.
Other additions include the heartbreaking backstory of lovers Bill and Frank (played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett); Melanie Lynskey’s cruel Kansas City revolutionary Kathleen; and the debut on-screen appearance of Ellie’s mum, Anna (Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie in the games). Mazin and Druckmann have opted to expand their world rather than remake it – filling in the gaps that were previously left blank. This wisely avoids controversy and should keep the hardcore fanbase from frothing at the mouth like an infected.
If you’ve not played the game – and lots won’t have – then it works just as well. Ellie and Joel’s adventure – on foot, horseback and by car – packs in as many breathtaking vistas as it does thrilling action sequences. The mechanics of TV mean there are far fewer fight scenes (no one wants to sit through nine hours of repetitive shootouts), but The Last Of Us isn’t really about that anyway. It’s about the moving relationship at its core, powered here by Pascal and Ramsey’s fizzing chemistry. Joel is simple on the surface yet hides boiling emotion underneath. He’s Clint Eastwood for the PS5 generation. Ramsey, 19, displays surprising range for her age, as Ellie bounces from traumatised teen to bubbly class clown and back in seconds. With her sarcastic wit and sassy putdowns, she adds much-needed levity to the show – and, at times, carries it completely.
If there’s one criticism to be made, it’s that some of the characters feel underused. Brothers Henry and Sam, on-the-run from Kathleen for “collaborating” with her enemies, provide some of the best moments in season one, before disappearing after a single episode. It’s the same for Ellie’s best mate Riley (Euphoria’s Storm Reid) and Tommy, the brother of Joel played by Gabriel Luna. Understandably the focus needs to be on our central duo, but a slower pace could have meant more development elsewhere.
That’s nitpicking though. When The Last Of Us was announced, a vocal corner of the internet exploded into anxious anticipation, some sniping that Ramsey didn’t look enough like Ellie. Gamers have been burned before by poorly conceived adaptations of their favourite titles, so they were naturally skeptical. But they needn’t have been. The Last Of Us lacks novel ideas, but when it’s this good it can get away with it.
‘The Last of Us’ will air exclusively on Sky Atlantic and NOW from January 16