If you’re a fan of video games, you can hardly have been impressed by the current spate of television adaptations. From Paramount Plus’s anaemic Halo to Netflix’s short-lived and by-the-numbers Resident Evil, gamers have been served poorly by TV executives. So, when the news emerged that Craig Mazin, writer of the critically acclaimed Chernobyl mini-series, would be joining forces with Neil Druckmann, creator of one of the most revered games in the history of the format, well, expectations were tempered. So it is with a breezily unencumbered swagger that HBO’s epic reimagining of The Last of Us arrives this month on small screens.
Pedro Pascal is Joel, a taciturn veteran. It’s 2003: George W Bush smiles down from classroom walls and Joel’s truck sports an Operation Desert Storm bumper sticker. “Jakarta?,” Joel wonders, as rumours of a horrific infection reach American airwaves. “Where is that? Middle East?” He’ll know soon enough: the Indonesian city is the epicentre of the outbreak. A mutated version of the cordyceps fungus rages out of a bread factory, and the world falls to pieces. Within days, all that’s left is the ragtag society of survivors and an earth governed largely by mushroom-brained zombies.
Enter Ellie, played by Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey, an 11-year-old girl who might hold the key to undoing the virus. Joel’s task is to smuggle her safely out of the quarantine zone and over to a band of resistance fighters. The snag? Ellie’s been bitten, though the infection doesn’t seem to be spreading. “You need to stop talking about this kid like she’s got some sort of life in front of her,” Joel tells his partner Tess (Mindhunter’s Anna Torv) when they receive their instructions. But Ellie does have life in front of her; it’s just going to involve sticking her knife into the skull of a lot of drooling undead.
The casting of The Last of Us’s central pairing, both alumni of the big dragon and ice-zombie show, is no coincidence. Pascal has forged an astonishing TV career from his fan-favourite, but only eight episode-long, arc on Game of Thrones. After Narcos and The Mandalorian, this is Pascal’s third post-Westeros leading role. He has a reliable magnetism as grizzled men who’d rather punch than talk. Ramsey, meanwhile, does an excellent line in precocious but endearing teenagers. “You ask a lot of goddam questions,” Joel growls at her, as she prattles her way through the lonely coniferous wasteland.
The core question, in assessing The Last of Us, is how effectively it escapes its video game roots. Video games are inhabited, they’re interactive, they ask players to be active in the storytelling where other media wants us to be passive. The challenge, for writers bringing these stories to new formats, is how to sustain some of that magic. I can’t comment on its faithfulness, but The Last of Us wears its origins more lightly than many of its peers. All the same – and perhaps for necessary marketing purposes – there are consistent reminders of its forebear: a nerve-shredding over-the-shoulder escape from downtown Austin, while 747s fall from the sky, and all the locked doors, fallen rubble, and blocked off passages you’d expect.
But, largely, the series is successful in shrugging off the episodic nature of linear gameplay. The design is stunning: vistas of deserted, bombed out, metropolises are matched by sprawling, Western inflected, shots of rural America. The show is graphic: not just in the blood splattering of its violence, but in its very imagery. Fungi bloom from corpses, while strange flowers cast unearthly patterns against abandoned cityscapes, like trippy William Morris wallpaper.
The Last of Us is undoubtedly a new landmark in the seemingly impossible task of adapting video games. It’s too early to say whether it will satisfy the legions of fans who believe that Druckmann’s survivalist game is high art, in itself. But Druckmann, working with Mazin, has his fingerprints all over this tender, well-crafted and blackly comic piece. Right now, HBO is simply operating on a different level to any other network. With The Last of Us, it has another monster hit on its hands.