For a long time, video game fans just wanted to see adaptations that didn’t have seething contempt for the source material. You watch enough movies like Super Mario Bros., where the games mostly seemed to serve to provide a few character names and proper nouns, and it's easy to long for a movie or TV show that actually engages with what the game it's adapting is about. But over the past few years, video game movies and TV have become increasingly faithful to the games they’re based on. HBO’s The Last of Us, judging by early teases, seems like it will be the most faithful yet. I’m not convinced that that’s a good thing.
The Last of Us is a perfect contender for slavish recreation. Though we don’t know, yet, if the HBO series will make significant departures from the game’s story, these early looks don't seem to. The characters you would expect to see — Joel, Ellie, Bill, Riley — are all there. Lines are lifted straight from the game. And series lead Neil Druckmann is a creator, writer, and director on the show.
In the transition to prestige TV, TLOU wouldn’t need to change much. The game is around 15 hours long, so while cuts need to be made to fit it to the 10 hours of an HBO season, the time spent on combat and stealth will likely be significantly reduced, given that there's no player whose hands need to be kept busy.
Otherwise, the structure is there. The game cycles through four seasons, which correspond with the arc of the story. While Joel has the overarching mission to get Ellie to the Fireflies, the game is also fairly episodic as they make their way there. This is all a pretty neat fit for TV.
But, as someone who loves The Last of Us, I can’t find a reason to be excited for the show. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a few years ago, then watched David Fincher’s adaptation recently and was disappointed by how faithful it was to the source material. An ideal adaptation should effectively translate the work to a new medium while still providing some excitement and surprises for the crowd that’s already familiar with it. TGWTDT didn’t manage to do that, and I fear The Last of Us won’t either.
The Last of Us is just the most recent evolution in how Hollywood presents games on screen, and it corresponds to the industry’s attitude toward nerd culture as a whole. While the first X-Men movie played down the nerdiness of the comics by putting the team in black leather uniforms instead of their iconic colorful costumes, the MCU has leaned much further into faithfulness. When Wolverine eventually shows up in the MCU, there’s basically zero chance he isn’t wearing yellow and blue spandex.
As the people who were raised on the source material have grown up to control the levers of power — to write and direct and produce these adaptations — the embarrassment has become a non-factor. Sure, comics and video games and Star Wars are nerdy, but nerd culture is the culture. When Super Mario Bros. came out in 1993 it took some of the basics of Mario, like Italian brothers who wear overalls and the names Bowser and Yoshi, and transported them into a completely bugnuts movie. It didn't resemble the game at all.
That movie isn’t especially great (though I do have some nostalgia for its bizarre gritty take on the Mushroom Kingdom). Nobody was happy with it, not fans or critics. But, there has to be a middle ground between something that only seems vaguely aware its source material exists and an adaptation that treats its inspiration as sacred.
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