The finale of HBO’s The Last of Us proved that it could do what other shows in the genre can’t – they can stick the landing.
The prestige TV adaptation of the cult-favorite PlayStation game brought in 8.2 million viewers by the series finale. However, this is far from a common occurrence.
Adaptations of beloved games often bomb at the box office. Movies featuring well-known characters like Lara Croft and Ratchet & Clank sit as low as 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. The new Super Mario Brothers movie has already gained significant controversy months before its release date. It’s safe to say that The Last of Us (TLOU) was a gamble, but it certainly paid off.
That said, it’s not impossible to make a good video game adaption. It’s actually been done quite a few times. However, in most cases, the intellectual property was much more recognizable to a large audience than a smaller, niche group of diehard fans like TLOU has. For example, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the top-rated video game movies are familiar properties like Angry Birds, Pokemon, or Sonic the Hedgehog.
Less Invested = Better Adaptation?
It’s safe to say that almost everyone going into these movies had a basic understanding of the characters and the world they inhabit. While The Last of Us isn’t exactly an underground darling with 37 million copies sold, Joel and Ellie are certainly less woven into the fabric of society than Pikachu and Sonic. For now, anyway.
The show's success has to make any studio exec’s ears perk up. They could be sitting on a wealth of ideas if they can mine lesser-known IP for adaptable content. So how do execs know what video game stories would make good adaptations?
The truth is, they don’t. Nobody can predict what will gain momentum among viewers. For example, the Angry Birds games seem like simple point-and-click strategy games that don’t require – or warrant – lots of exposition. However, the movies grossed almost $150 million domestically, and the sequel is certified fresh at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s unclear if the films are profitable because kids like the characters or because diehard fans of the game are heading to the theaters in droves to see the angry little red bird with big eyebrows. Either way, the hype over the franchise isn’t dying down – they just announced that Angry Birds 3 is in development.
The Most of Us
It would be an oversight not to attribute much of TLOU’s success to the story. The show and the game center around a single father named Joel Miller, who loses his daughter at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. He spends the next decade being hardened by his struggle to survive in the wasteland until he meets Ellie, a 14-year-old girl he is tasked with protecting against his better judgment. Over time, of course, Joel begins to soften to Ellie, seeing her almost as a surrogate daughter. The two travel across the desolate and dangerous U.S. together, fighting zombies, raiders, and their own past traumas.
While the game has been described as “the greatest story ever told in video games”, the story dives even deeper into the universe, almost acting as a character study. Pedro Pascal's star-making turn as the tormented and vicious Joel showed deep suffering over the loss of his daughter and how Joel tried to cope with that loss in the following years. It was a heart-achingly beautiful performance about a father who would do anything to protect the ones he loved.
Bella Ramsey’s turn as the infected-but-not-infected teen Ellie brought even more depth to an already complex and layered character. Ellie is an orphan, passed around by adults who never seem to care how she feels about it. Through the many tribulations of growing up in the apocalypse, she gains a sense of determination to help create a cure. This determination ultimately leads to a jaw-dropping conclusion.
The performances from Pascal and Ramsey are supplemented by a cavalcade of top-tier guest stars, including Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as doomed lovers Bill and Frank, Gabriel Luna as Joel’s younger brother Tommy, and Euphoria’s Storm Reid as Ellie’s best friend and love interest.
Proving Their Worth
The combination of multifaceted characters, epic storylines, and brilliant casting likely make up the lion’s share of reasons why the show is so successful. However, a significant aspect of this is how the show stayed faithful to the source material and, more importantly, what it dared to change.
Hell hath no wrath like a legion of chronically-online fanboys, but the show creators – Chernobyl‘s Craig Mazin and game creator Neil Druckmann – weren’t afraid to take some artistic liberties with their retelling of the story. The changes ranged from making Bill and Frank’s relationship more explicitly romantic to giving Ellie’s infection immunity an appropriately traumatic backstory.
Some of the changes – like the overall reduction in the number of infected – was met with criticism from viewers. But overall, the show did justice to the game, following several pivotal game scenes to a near-perfect extent.
Ultimately, it is a combination of all of these factors that lead to the show’s success and another secret ingredient: love. Interviews with the creators and actors show how much admiration everyone on set has for each other and the source material. This is an essential lesson for studios that tackle any IP with devoted fanbases: either do it with love or not at all.
You can stream every episode of The Last of Us on HBO Max.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.