The Last of Us review: The best video game adaptation in years - if not ever
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There is no doubt that The Last of Us will be one of the biggest releases of 2023, proving that video game adaptations don't always have to be duds.
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When studio execs decide to turn to video games for inspiration, people naturally start to get twitchy - the strange horror of seeing a boiler-suited Bob Hoskins running around as an Italian plumber in the early 90s evidently an image still fresh in their minds.
And you’d have thought the chequered past of the doomed Resident Evil franchise would prove enough of a deterrent for another stab at the beast, but Netflix’s series found the same fate as its predecessors last year when it was cancelled after just one season.
But even the biggest sceptics are open to being proven wrong, intrigued and keen for that rare payoff that comes when two industries work to their own strengths to create an absolute monster.
This elusive feat has been achieved with undeniable prowess by The Last of Us, the new HBO series based on the video game of the same name, which will undoubtedly be one of this year’s biggest and most memorable releases. Yep, just days into the first month of the year and we’re potentially already peaking.
A joint production between Sony Pictures Television, PlayStation Productions, Naughty Dog, The Mighty Mint and Word Games, the series follows smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he is tasked with transporting teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic United States, battling swathes of the undead infected by a mutated fungus.
The result is not just a strong adaptation, but frankly perfect television in its own right, flitting deftly between the sheer carnage of a zombie apocalypse and the sombre gloom of the bleak, dystopian world that follows.
Pascal and Ramsay guide us through the narrative with charisma, poignancy, and even glimpses of humour, while the gorgeous cinematic sheen that comes courtesy of that tasty HBO budget pays stunning homage to the detail of the original game’s created world.
While TV scriptwriters might feel pressured by the audience (and an angry mob on Twitter) to play nicely, here there is no fear to brutally kill off left, right and centre, as is simply de rigueur in virtual warfare. Just as you start to get attached to someone, the teeth marks appear on their body or they're blown to smithereens - and they do not respawn.
But arguably the biggest benefit is the ability to dig deeper into the more reflective moments of the story; times that in gaming would be a brief occasion to refuel or reenergise become welcome nuance and background. Where Bill was a relatively minor character in the game, this incarnation gets an unexpected moment in the spotlight with an entire episode dedicated to him – and what a haunting treat it is, for his story is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking instalments you’ll ever watch.
There’s no denying, too, that the show becomes particularly evocative in a post-Covid world. While vampires historically serve as a metaphor for our innate fear of penetration and rape, zombies are a fictional trope that illustrate our phobia of disease and infection.
In The Last of Us, the illness is depicted as one that works fast, taking just hours to turn humans into frenzied killing machines that thrive most in the busy cities that would have previously felt like the safest of strongholds, but are now just hotbeds of the infected. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
When wrapping the season’s nine episodes, you’ll find yourself praising the TV gods for giving this the drawn-out small screen treatment, knowing it is not something to be compacted into a two-hour window to be enjoyed with popcorn. It somehow manages to stay true to the original source material, while also pushing it further, and harder. The result is the best video game adaptation in years, if not ever.
The Last of Us lands on HBO in the US on 15 January. UK fans can watch via Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW from 16 January.