The Last of Us Season 1 (2023-): The Masterpiece that Breaks the Video Game Curse
It should to no one’s surprise that video game adaptations often are duds among both critics and fans of the source material alike. And with a track record of adaptations such as Super Mario Bros, the Resident Evil films and even the new Uncharted film, people by now realize how difficult it is to make a faithful video game to film adaptation. Which is why expectations were stratospheric when The Last of Us was announced to be in production, with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey starring as the titular post-apocalyptic duo.
Joel Miller (played by Pedro Pascal) is your typical worn and torn survivor living 20 years into a Cordyceps outbreak that turns people into zombies. Whilst trying to find a way of transport to reach his brother Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna) he runs into the leader of a rebel group known as the Fireflies. Their leader, Marlene (played by Merle Dandridge), offers Joel what he needs as long as he transports a young girl, Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey), who also happens to be the only one immune to the Cordyceps fungus. Joel must now guide Ellie across the United States to a Firefly outpost so that a vaccine can be manufactured.
The Last of Us game is considered to be one of the greatest video games of all time, with its complex characters and compelling story. Which is why making a faithful show adaptation was both promising but cause for worry, even with The Last of Us creator, Neil Druckmann, co-creating the show. The result is a beautiful translation of a video game to the big screen with its intricate narrative receiving even more attention to detail than the game. Its themes surrounding humanity and morality are some of the most relatable themes in any medium, they somehow managed to combine these themes with one of the bleakest tones I have ever seen in TV or movies. But I also have to mention how well founded the science behind the Cordyceps outbreak is, as it feels both realistic and accurate, which adds extra layers of both realism and horror.
Now, not everything will translate well in a video game to the big screen. Deviations have to be made in order to serve the narrative, and many of these deviations both large and small elevate the story even more. Some of the biggest changes from the game was Bill and Frank’s love story, even getting their own episode. In the game we are introduced to Bill as a grumpy paranoid survivalist with only mentions of Frank in passing. In the show, both Bill and Frank are given layers of humanity and a love story that would make the toughest of men cry! Smaller changes happen mostly with little changes in dialogue, such as Henry’s last line after putting down his infected little brother. No matter any of the source material changes or accuracy, you are guaranteed to cry at least once…an episode throughout the series.
One thing everyone can appreciate is how much care goes into treating these characters as complex individuals rather than archetypal heroes and villains, whether they appear for a single episode or get entire series arcs. Pedro Pascal as Joel is pitch perfect casting, and since he has a knack for portraying surrogate father figures this was nothing new. However, he portrays Joel with vulnerability, masculinity and savagery. Showing how much he cares for Ellie with two words, “Baby Girl”, and what happens when that family is threatened. Joel SCORCHED EARTH in the finale to save Ellie with the background music perfectly selling how horrifying of a situation it is for us as we fear Joel’s wrath and the fates of the Fireflies.
I wasted a whole paragraph on Joel and Pedro, let’s waste another on Bella Ramsey as Ellie. Many hardcore fans of the game were extremely vocal in their concerns about Bella Ramsey being cast as Ellie, but their opinions don’t matter to me. Ramsey embodies Ellie beautifully! They manage to bring all of Ellie’s sassy, sarcastic charm along with her ability to be independent when the situation calls for it. Episodes 7 and 8 are where Ramsey truly shines as they convey a complex range of emotions along with the procession of extremely traumatic events, such as the death of her best friend Riley along with her getting bit, and her altercation with the creepy and sadistic David. Ramsey is a serious acting force to be reckoned with!
Of course, all of the supporting cast is just as phenomenal. Nick Offerman as Bill particularly comes to mind, as he channels much of his well known character Ron Swanson for a majority of Bill’s personality, but still managed to bring a ton of humanity to his character with his interactions and blossoming romance with Frank. The same can be said for Storm Reid’s Riley as she managed to bring a loyal yet funny best friend that Ellie always needed. Protecting her as if she was family, and giving her the best night of her life when it came to remembering her goodbye. Which made it more heartbreaking as her death became inevitable. But Scott Shepherd as David was truly something else. David was one of the most vile characters from the game and somehow was made much more monstrous in live action with Shepherd's portrayal. It just goes to show how many layers even side characters can have if given the right material.
The video game curse in TV and films has been well known as it has been difficult to faithfully adapt any game to the silver screen. But the 2020s, particularly 2023, seem to be the dawn of a new era as The Last of Us leads the charge. While I don’t like to throw around the term “masterpiece” often, the first season of The Last of Us certainly deserves the title. The phenomenal performances from Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey and the entire cast of supporting characters gives many more layers to the writing and the source material than anyone can ever hope. While it is not a beat for beat adaptation, the deviations in source material never feel out of place and also elevate the world into being more realistic. Along with its complex themes surrounding morality, humanity and family, The Last of Us is the one of the few successful adaptations to break the video game curse!