Since its creation in the early 1970s (it celebrated its 50th anniversary last year), HBO, the self-proclaimed prestige channel, has always been bold and creative in its original fiction projects. She has often reached the heights of popularity, with Game Of Thrones obviously, upset the codes of the television industry, with The Sopranos and TheWire as indisputable pillars, but also known bitter and (very) expensive failures like the cursed series Rome by John Milius, William J. MacDonald and Bruno Heller, which aired in the mid-2000s. In 2023, HBO is taking on a new challenge by tackling a particularly risky area of pop culture: its first video game adaptation and not just any, since it is the cult franchise The Last of Us developed by Naughty Dog.
An iconic PlayStation franchise for players around the world, which shines with its immersive gameplay, its rich post-apocalyptic universe, its terrifying bestiary and above all its narrative qualities, through a survivalist road movie story as poignant as it is spectacular . In the collective imagination, we could say that adaptation is “easy” because all the elements are already present to make it a popular and successful work, but good adaptation does not necessarily rhyme with great series. However, HBO, as usual, has recruited the necessary means and people to satisfy fans and attract new audiences. In short, a desire to affix its prestige label to an extremely popular video game work, with an author’s touch to deliver a relevant subtext anchored in the contemporary world.
In this case, it is the showrunner Craig Mazin, already at the origin of the masterpiece Chernobylreleased in 2019. A screenwriter, director and producer with a surprising and even downright atypical career, who began his career with the sequels to… very bad trip and Scary Movie. A creator capable of making us laugh in theory, but also of carrying out with a master hand dramatic stories and above all very anchored in reality, like the Chernobyl disaster told in a moving mini-series of five episodes. On The Last of Ushe is joined by Neil Druckmann, the right hand man of Naughty Dog and artistic director of the games, who coshowrun the series and directed an episode of the first season.
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If we are already vibrating behind the camera, HBO has not skimped on the side of the cast. Headlined by two veterans of Game Of Thronesin roles, certainly, secondary but which have forever marked the fans by their involved interpretation: Pedro Pascal, unanimously elected best pop culture dad since The Mandalorian, and Bella Ramsey, a young actress barely 20 years old, unforgettable in the role of fierce Lyanna Mormont. On the side of the supporting roles, there are also heads known to series lovers including Anna Torv (mindhunter), Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), Murray Bartlett (The White Lotus) or Gabriel Luna (The Agents of SHIELD). The icing on the cake for fans of the games, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, the original voice actors of Joel and Ellie, are entitled to a small role/cameo in the series.
On paper, this mix of talents is frankly dreaming and lets us predict the best for the series. But, while the first episode has just arrived on HBO and HBO Max in the United States, and in the wake of us on Amazon Prime Video, the prestigious channel has also managed to sublimate a video game work already recognized as cult and therefore untouchable by reputation?
A pilot contaminated by good ideas
From the first minutes of “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”, the name of the first episode in reference to the Dragonflies mantra, this group of survivors in revolt against the army and tyrannical groups, the series surprises us. Craig Mazin’s intelligence and writing talent of this cold-open which does not exist in the games, but whose importance in the exposition of the story is quickly understood, hit the mark. The sixties American talk show, where a scientist plays the whistleblower about the potential danger posed by fungi in a mass pandemic, completely echoes our society, anchoring The Last of Us in a very current and realistic context. That of the Covid and global warming, two elements influenced by our social and ecological behavior and which could, in the long term, trigger a form of apocalypse similar to that which the characters will go through.
But the influence of the creator of Chernobyl don’t stop there. Throughout the first episode, the tension which rises crescendo, directed effectively by Craig Mazin in person with the realization, sublimates the play and the memories of the players and players. The video game versions of The Last of Us also offered this very cinematic aspect of their staging, pushed to the maximum in the series. We think of the iconic car scene, where the impressive car accident of Joel, Sarah and Tommy becomes downright a spectacular plane crash, and where we can thank HBO for the work and the investment in a sequence tense, both respectful of the base material and which makes it even more stunning. Craig Mazin offers here a gradual and ineluctable vision of the catastrophe that is coming, like the one staged with the Chernobyl accident in the eponymous mini-series, and which takes you to the guts in a few seconds.
Another interesting choice from the writers, the series opens through the eyes of Sarah, Joel’s daughter, played by Nico Parker (who, for your information, is the daughter of the brilliant Thandiwe Newton seen in Westworld). An introduction particularly consistent with the title of the episode: Sarah represents the light of Joel, which will disappear and leave him facing the darkness of despair and loneliness. Later in the episode, we also see a parallel between Joel and Ellie who each observe a Dragonfly tag, so as to visually represent their linked destinies. A form of melancholy poetry that inhabited the game and that we find with a certain emotion in the series.
An end of the world more beautiful than ever
But talking about Sarah is also talking about Nico Parker and more broadly the cast of The Last of Us. With only about thirty minutes of playing time on screen, the young actress reveals herself to be very credible and moving. We quickly get hooked on his chemistry with Pedro Pascal, who once again confirms his playing accuracy by embodying the gruff, firm and silent Joel, and once again establishes himself as a leading face of modern pop culture. Personally, I would give my crush to Anna Torv in the role of Tess, a very talented actress (revealed in fringe, the real ones know) in a very physical and counter-intuitive role to which I was not accustomed and which completely conquered me. In short, easy to say but in summary, and as often in HBO productions, the cast transcends the work and allows us to discover emerging talents to follow closely (Nico Parker, we will not forget you).
Visually, the series also imposes with polished photography and fairly dull and greenish color tones, which once again evoke the chilling atmosphere of Chernobyl. Whether The Last of Us does not revolutionize the genre of survival post-apocalyptic, however, she seems to have understood that at the heart of this dramatic story, it is the characters, their development and their psychology that matter (poke The Walking Dead, who ended up forgetting). Nevertheless, it also creates enough mystery and tension in a single episode to make us want to learn more about its mythology, and in particular about the spongy contamination and these infected humans, who have a very particular name in the games, the famous Clickers. To see if, subsequently, the series takes a more horrific turn, an essential aspect of video games that is somewhat lacking in this first episode.
After 80 intense minutes of a smoothly conducted pilot, it is clearly too early to read between the lines and perceive what the adaptation could bring to the original material. One thing is certain and the fans have already understood it, the desire to remain faithful is omnipresent. From the plans to the dialogues to certain emblematic accessories (Joel’s watch, a symbol of time which stops for him when Sarah dies), the series does not want to betray the fans. Knowing the reputation of HBO and the talents invested, we even expect it to come to sublimate the games with freedom grips or even innovative elements, which could transform it into a perfect companion series more than just a screen transcript.
However, as we reminded in the intro, a good adaptation does not necessarily make a good series, even if we can’t wait to find out in a few weeks or even in a few years in the event of renewal, if Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have managed to break the curse of video game adaptations in series and cinema. But that, only the last of us will be able to see.
The Last of Us: Why the original video game can never be topped
In France, the first season of The Last of Us airs simulcast with the US every Monday on Amazon Prime Video.