Video games have a curse that has plagued them since the medium existed, which is adaptations or transitioning the story from video games to a movie or TV series format. Let me just tell you this; most video games that have been adapted are just plain terrible, and sure, some adaptations are good, but there aren’t any that tickled our gamer hearts and introduced non-gamers to the great stories that they’re missing out on, no adaptation has been spot on.
So when they announced that HBO is making a TV show adapted from The Last of Us, one of my favorite games, I felt both excited and anxious with the thought that they can either make a great show or get hit with the curse of being badly adapted.
And so 2023 came, and The Last of Us aired, and from the first episode right down to the last minute of the finale, I was captivated and awed since they broke the curse of adaptation!
Today, we’ll discuss and try to dissect why The Last of Us HBO broke the curse and set a new standard for video game adaptations while comparing it to other adaptations along the way!
What Even Is the Curse?
The curse of video game adaptations deals with the lack of one aspect that TV and Movies don’t have, interaction! Video games are an interactive medium; you have to play the game to understand what’s going on, and translating that to TV and film typically doesn’t end well.
It all started with The Super Mario Bros. Movie back in 1993, it’s both a critical and a commercial failure. It strayed far from the beloved Nintendo game and portrayed a dark and gritty tone that viewers just didn’t expect.
But as of the time of writing in 2023, we’ve received yet another Super Mario movie with some pretty big names starring in it, and yes, it’s been a pretty fun movie to watch to try and catch every Easter egg, and you can say it broke the curse, but it still doesn’t have a lot to talk about when it comes to the story.
And of course, there are a handful of other shows and movies that also broke the curse beforehand; we have Detective Pikachu and Sonic The Hedgehog (thank god they didn’t go with the first Sonic design); they’re clearly good, but dealt with the same conditions as Super Mario; they don’t have a ton of lore and original stories, and while they’re captivating and full of eye candy, it doesn’t do much with storytelling.
Another show that already broke the curse is The Witcher, a series of novels that got adapted into video games and again adapted into a TV Show. The show was great despite being criticized, and it was a commercial success, with season 3 being made right now. It has the opposite situation, though; it has great lore and storyline, but The Witcher can be hard to watch, especially for non-gamers.
But when I watched The Last of Us, it ticked all the boxes for me. It brought a great story that is delivered through nine watchable and easily digestible episodes, and even non-gamers can easily follow and watch everything. Despite not being perfect, I think it’s safe to say that TLOU is curse free!
What Made The Last of Us a Good Adaptation?
Yes, TLOU did a great job with the things I just mentioned, but is that everything that TLOU did? What are the other things that made it great? Did they keep everything original or not?
Keeping It Loyal and Disloyal at the Same Time
Once again, the thing with adapting video games into TV shows or movies is that you’re losing the interaction that you have while playing the game, so you can’t be fully loyal to the story since there is just no interaction that’ll help you discover everything yourself through environmental storytelling and playing around in the game’s world.
It meant that immersing the viewer can be much harder than it is to immerse a gamer into the game’s world. It’s much harder to make the viewer scared with clickers than it is for gamers who had to literally fight with limited bullets and weapons.
With that, you really have to change something with the show’s script to make the viewers experience the same things that the gamers went through, which is why it’s often bad to stick religiously to the original when it comes to game adaptations.
As if it’s not tricky enough, The Last of Us is full of complex and weird emotions that a lot of us haven’t dealt with before. How can a show give that same experience? Through changing the narrative into something more TV friendly!
But first, what are the major things that TLOU changed with the adaptation?
First off, there are some technical changes, mainly in how the infection spreads. They removed spores for the sake of not needing to wear masks so it can be more friendly on a TV show; fortunately, they replaced spores with tendrils which are kind of more terrifying.
There are a few more changes, like the source of the infection, Joel isn’t a superhuman anymore, and even Bill and Frank had a change with their story, all of which I mentioned are great and welcome changes that I think improved and saved the show from the curse!
So while keeping everything completely loyal to the original material is the path that a lot of people wanted to see, I think that deviating a thing or two from the original material while keeping the whole vibe as close to the original material is the best path that future adaptations can take.
One of the first things that people think about adaptations is does the characters look like the originals from the video games, and while that may bring a ton of immersion, it really isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing about the casting is if they can portray the character well, and TLOU did a great job with this!
Now, at first glance, Pedro Pascal and especially Bella Ramsey don’t look like Joel and Ellie, but when I watched TLOU, it’s as if they really are Joel and Ellie! And the fact that they presented the characters so well might be the reason why TLOU did so well.
Let’s deviate for a bit and give you an example of bad casting! Let’s talk about Uncharted! When I did the research for this article, I totally forgot about Uncharted, I thought the film wasn’t released yet, but I discovered that it got struck by the curse and ended up not doing so well. After watching the film, there’s one thing I can totally point out, and that the main characters are just not there.
The film casts Tom Holland as Nathan Drake and Mark Wahlberg as Sully, and instead of playing Nathan Drake and Sully’s characters, it’s as if I really am watching Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, do you get what I mean? In the film, Wahlberg’s Sully is a selfish jerk, unlike the likable and caring guy who cared for Nate in the game. I mean, this guy was supposed to be Nate’s father figure since he raised him. The film just featured a different guy, I wouldn’t even call that character Sully.
On the other hand, Tom Holland’s Nathan Drake is just good, too good in fact, just as Chloe Frazer said in the film:
Now, he’s still a thief and all, but he just doesn’t have anything that needs improving. There’s just no space left for character development, just as Nate developed his character in the games.
Going back to TLOU, everything is still there, Bella Ramsey’s Ellie is still the same Ellie when it comes to her tenacious and brave attitude, and might I say humorous as well! And hey, Bella Ramsey even sounds and speaks like Ellie in the game, which is not exactly a requirement with adaptations, but a welcome one nonetheless.
The same can be said about Pedro Pascal’s Joel, he’s still the loving single father to Sarah, and by the time everything went to ruins, he is still the hardened Joel we all know.
Other characters in TLOU also kept their character despite a ton of differences. Tommy Miller is still the same sympathetic and lovable person as he was in the game. Bill is still the hardcore badass survivor who thrived in the apocalypse, only this time, we got to see more of Bill and Frank in episode 3! We could go on and on, but overall, we got to have the same feel and sympathy for the characters in the show despite interacting with them since the show took care of that for us and showed us a more in-depth story for a ton of them!
The Show Is More Realistic
Everything on movies and TV is unrealistic, and since The Last of Us has been about providing a realistic gameplay experience on how it is like to be in a zombie apocalypse, that meant making the show more realistic as well.
Games and shows are completely different; with games, your character likely has a ton of health and will respawn indefinitely. However, you can only experience that one in a show. This meant that Joel and Ellie doesn’t have superhuman abilities anymore.
Every character has to be more vulnerable (which also adds to their character’s depth), and this welcome change brought us to our seats! I mean, clickers aren’t so exciting after playing a good bunch of the game, but seeing Joel, Ellie, and Tess struggle with two clickers in episode 2 was just so intense! And don’t even mention the hoard of infected and bloater in episode 5! And yes, infected were featured less in the show, but each and every scene with infected are just great, and it’s not too much that you get desensitized to it too quickly.
Lots of Care
The last thing that made TLOU a successful adaptation and the thing that future adaptations should always include is lots of care!
Here’s the thing, The original The Last of Us already has a great story that’s ready to be set on screen without needing a ton of changes. The story is perfect, everything is interesting, and everything can be translated into a show. But despite all that, everyone who made the show still put a ton of care and love into the equation. I know it sounds cheesy, but if you have great original material that also has great potential to be a show or movie, but you didn’t put in a ton of love and care, you’ll end up with something like Uncharted, and remember that like The Last of Us, Uncharted is also a great narrative-heavy game made by Naughty Dog! The difference is caring, people!
Dramatics aside, the creators of the show really put a lot of effort into the show! They even brought in a ton of people from the original game, and they even brought in Neil Druckmann (the original writer of the game) to co-write the show and Gustavo Santaolalla to write the music again!
As we also talked about a lot in this article, they also took a lot of care with the changes to keep it as original as possible while also making good changes that are beneficial for an adaptation. Talking about love, I also loved that they included new bits and details about the story and lore about how the infection spread and how Ellie was born. I mean, if you’re a fan of the game, you’ll just feel the love and care that they put into this whole project. With a controversial season 2 coming, let’s see if they can work their magic and save TLOU2‘s reputation or at least give us a show that’s as good as season 1!
Overall, as cheesy as it might sound, I think love and care are the last things that have been missing in a ton of video game adaptations that ultimately flunked.
This has been my review and breakdown for The Last of Us HBO! I know I could’ve included more on the list, but we could be here all day if I do so. So, if you have any ideas or thoughts that you think contributed to TLOU’s success, please share them in the comments! If you think that TLOU has been bad or could’ve been better, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!