Hollywood hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to bringing video games to film and TV. Despite big stars and big budgets, movies like Prince of Persia, Max Payne and the infamous Super Mario Bros. have failed to recapture the magic of their source material.
But if anyone can turn that trend around, it’s HBO. Based on one of the most celebrated games of all time, The Last of Us begins its nine-part first season this Sunday, taking viewers to a post-apocalypse wherein the world has been decimated by a fungus that infects human hosts and turns them into rabid, grotesquely deformed monsters. Amidst this living nightmare, we follow a grizzled smuggler named Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his latest cargo, a plucky kid named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), whom he’s tasked with transporting across the country, braving fungus zombies and ruthless fellow survivors alike. HBO CanadaBeyond the HBO factor, fans have reason to be excited about the man behind the camera—Craig Mazin, who created the lauded HBO miniseries Chernobyl and counts himself a mega-fan of the 2013 PlayStation game. But what gives The Last of Us its best shot at succeeding where other game-to-TV attempts have failed is the fact that the game itself was a transcendent creation. Not just a purveyor of visceral action and jump-scares, it’s a poignant, impeccably written, impeccably voice-acted meditation on loss, love and what it takes to survive not only a zombie horde, but the tragedies that life holds in store for us all.
“The horror elements are there to force ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances,” Mazin explains. “And in the crucible of that circumstance, when the petty existentialism of our lives becomes serious existentialism, when every moment you are faced with your own survival or your own death, that’s when a lot of truth comes out. When you squeeze people, that’s when we find out who they are.”
Naturally, that squeeze reveals heroics and atrocities alike—both of which, per the showrunner, are fuelled by the same impulse. “[This reality] magnifies what is the essential social glue, and that’s love,” Mazin continues. “It makes love more intense—and that is both excellent news and terrible news, because love is the most powerful human emotion. The bond that is created can save us, can save other people, it makes life worth living. It also is underneath the surface of most terrible things.”
That duality is certainly at the heart of our protagonist, Joel—a man who, years after surviving the onset of fungal Armageddon, is still emotionally shattered by what happened that night. He’s built up an emotional wall around himself that his new young companion slowly begins to breach as their journey progresses, in spite of Joel’s best efforts to remain detached.
“Everyone has a different version of what it takes to survive,” Pascal tells us. “Ultimately, the argument can be made that you need to steer clear of real relationships, because that’s a threat in terms of your psychological can’t really exist without these kinds of relationships, without real connection. It’s a real Catch-22 for some characters in the story.” HBO CanadaServing as an unlikely link between the game and the TV show is actress Merle Dandridge, who actually reprises her game role as Marlene, head of the Fireflies—a paramilitary organization fighting to save humanity from both the infected and itself. As the woman who sends Joel and Ellie off on their mysterious quest, she has a different philosophy on what it takes to survive.
“I think everybody can relate, especially in [COVID times], to how you hold onto that sense of self in the midst of terrible circumstances,” Dandridge muses. “That is the function that I believe Marlene, as the leader of the Fireflies, holds. She has to carry that torch, and she has to continually pull up that mirror and say, ‘We will find our way back, or we will find a way forward. One way or another, we’re getting out of this.’ You have to have that faith.”
HBO CanadaOf course, as they say, the medium is the message, and moving from an active medium like video games, wherein the viewer has direct control of the characters and total immersion in their world, to an inherently passive medium like TV fundamentally changes the experience. Yet co-star Gabriel Luna, who plays Joel’s estranged brother Tommy, believes that a TV show can, in fact, be a more engrossing experience.
“When one plays The Last of Us, there are many moments where you set [your controller] down and you let this story play out, and in fact you’re just sitting and watching [the cinematic cutscenes]. There’s already kind of a built-in cinematic experience when playing the game. And I think in some ways it being interactive is requiring a different part of your brain—a problem-solving part of your brain that’s somewhat removing you from truly experiencing every element of the human interaction and the depth of the relationships. What’s exciting now is you can put the controller down and truly give yourself over to the story.” HBO CanadaIn previewing that story, we’ll give the last word to game creator Neil Druckmann, who worked with Mazin on the show. While he sees The Last of Us as more than just “horror,” it’s a tale that couldn’t be told without the power of the genre. As he puts it: “Good horror gets you to wrestle with ideas that are worse than death.”
The Last of Us premieres Sunday, January 15 on HBO Canada