How HBO Can Expand THE LAST OF US in a Powerful Way

HBO has pushed its adaptation of The Last of Us to approximately 2023. But it still feels within an arm’s reach, despite no official air date. The show’s staggeringly talented cast, as well as an equally prodigious line-up of directors, has the potential to rewrite how we regard video game adaptations. Of course, as it is an adaptation, the television rendering of this beloved video game will not be acting autonomously. Below the many layers of sublime Hollywood production lies a narrative as solid as bedrock. The question is: how much of The Last of Us’ original storytelling methods will carry over to the series adaptation?

To say that the first installment of The Last of Us was a landmark in video game narration is a gross understatement. Decorated with countless accolades, the 2013 video game weaves in a raw and tender story about the companionship between Joel, a fortysomething emotionally broken man who lost his daughter, and Ellie, an abandoned adolescent girl with a curious immunity. Together, they embark on a cross-country adventure twenty years into a post-apocalyptic world. In The Last of Us narrative world, the whole of modern society crumbles in the blink of an eye. An outbreak of the Cordyceps fungus tears through the human population, the infection creating zombie-like beings out of its Homo sapien hosts.

Editor’s Note: The Last of Us videos contains explicit language. 

The premise is undeniably thrilling with Joel and Ellie’s relationship providing a beating heart within the game’s high octane stakes. The rapport they have—initially tense, strife with grief and pain—quickly morphs into that between a parent and child. This blossoming familial love is reparative for both of them. But so is the sarcasm, along with the ongoing banter that will undoubtedly translate directly into the HBO series. It’s what makes Ellie and Joel, well, Ellie and Joel. In the adaptation, there should be a good dose of the whimsical, as there definitely will not be a deficit of somber and heart-wrenching elements. 

What is equally impressive is the game’s ability to deliver an entire other dimension to the character’s narrative arcs, all through subtleties. These plot efforts are so subliminal that you can almost miss them if you aren’t paying attention to every utterance and shot of motion-capture. But, if noticed and well received, their circuitous delivery makes them that much more enriching. However, in the show adaptation, strict adherence to the passivity of these arcs is not needed, nor is it opportune. A cinematic adaption will focus more on the stories of the characters. There is no involvement of a third-party gameplayer. Therefore, the narrative will likely prioritize more showing versus telling.

A prime instance of this subtle storytelling in the first game, which is my personal favorite part of the narration, is the relationship Joel has with Tess. She’s his work partner and the brains of their smuggling operation. On the surface, we are not privy to any explicit omissions from either of them. And Tess isn’t in the game very long before a bite on her neck settles any ambiguity in her relationship with Joel. However, HBO’s best interest, from a cinematic perspective, is to expand the relationship between Tess and Joel. This can be done through retrospective flashbacks or the combination of more explicit body language and dialogue.

It will help the audience fully understand why Joel’s dedication to Tess is so unrelenting. And it will explain why Tess’s dying words are the ultimate driving force for Joel to carry out his mission with Ellie. Tess’s final moments in the game leave so many unspoken details to unravel. So the show has a rather ample reserve of material to siphon from for a deeper narrative. If anything, a further fleshed-out romantic arc would only better contribute to Joel’s character development. Viewers can see how he defaults to putting his walls up, in light of his emotionally debilitating history. The production could tap into the million-dollar question: Is Joel still capable of intimate vulnerability?

Joel and Pedro Pascal side by side
Naughty Dog/Lucasfilm

Other instances of this storytelling mechanism appear throughout the game. The development of Bill’s identity comes out in an offhand admission about how he and his “partner” had a falling out. The word  becomes a double entendre. The game includes something resembling a vicious break-up note addressed to Bill along with Ellie taking items that strongly suggests his sexuality. If the showrunners chose to make Bill’s sexual orientation explicit, there would be an added comedic layer between Bill and Ellie’s hostility. It would be rather ironic considering they are not heterosexual. Also, on a deeper level, give the arc of Ellie figuring out her sexual identity richer development. 

There is also the subtle implication of David’s cannibalism. Frankly, I would not be upset if the show decided to keep this as implied rather than explicit. The game does not try to masquerade the foul and macabre practices of David’s collective; however, amplifying this part of the plot could detract from its nascent eeriness. This could, in a way, disrespect the source material by changing the story’s tone. I suspect that HBO will favor violence just going by its history. And as long as they keep the heart rates high, I will welcome whatever way the showrunners adapt this section. 

These aspects of The Last of Us are rich and make the game what it is; they also allow for players to engage outside of the game. They have been making connections and backstories for these beloved characters and allowing for implications to be treated as canon. Whether HBO will preserve these treasures is to be seen. But there is a good chance that the creators of the show will lean into many subtleties in a more cinematic way.

Ellie and Joel in HBO's The Last of Us series obseve a wreckage

It may dive into background to the smuggling network in Greater Boston, exhibiting the origins of the relationship between Tess and Joel through flashbacks. And, the possibility of nonlinear storytelling is high. Murray Bartlett has been cast in a speaking role as Frank. In the game, he is never featured alive. At any rate, it would be of great narrative interest to shed light on the background as an homage to the game’s implicative storytelling.

When it comes to an adaptation, there will always be concern for the work’s fidelity to the source content. I believe that these densely layered arcs that are oh-so precious within the game is in good hands. Maybe even the best of hands. The Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann is playing a large role in the writing of the series, as well as directing one of the episodes. We can spend from now to eternity speculating on how to properly adapt the game. And the game’s narrative opulence ultimately is what ignites those brilliant ideas.

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