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Game On: ‘The Last of Us’ show concludes in faithful fashion

Gone are the days of poor game-to-screen adaptations – HBO’s nine-episode treatment of “The Last of Us” stands as another testament to their potential excellence.  (HBO)
Gone are the days of poor game-to-screen adaptations – HBO’s nine-episode treatment of “The Last of Us” stands as another testament to their potential excellence. (HBO)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

The final episode of HBO’s screen adaptation of “The Last of Us” aired on Sunday, and I’m pleased to report that while it wasn’t perfect, season one was excellent overall – it delivered all the necessary plot beats, compellingly recreated the franchise’s apocalyptic setting and crafted some memorable characters.

In fact, creating memorable characters is one thing the show arguably accomplished better than the video game. The original game, released in 2013, focused primarily on main characters Joel and Ellie. HBO’s nine-episode adaptation spent significant chunks of time on backstories. Depending on who you are, you could see this as a good or bad thing – on one hand, it fleshes out the world more. On the other, such instances sometimes led to meandering and inconsistent pacing.

Ultimately, these new backstories made the world of “The Last of Us” more believable – we learned more about Joel’s daughter, the origins of the zombie outbreak and the reason behind Ellie’s immunity to the cordyceps infection. All of these elements were arguably easier to explore in the context of a show than they would’ve been in a video game.

Without getting into spoilers, the difference in the storytelling medium also made several plot points even more morally ambiguous than before. The Last of Us has many themes, but the “violence only begets more violence” motif is harder to take seriously in the video game where players are tasked with mowing down hundreds of zombies and ill-intentioned humans alike.

Part II only made that issue worse, which was a sticking point for many despite the 2020 game’s overall excellent sales and critical acclaim. The show’s creators have already received the green light for season two, which is set to cover the events of the second game. Since Part II’s story leans even more into themes of moral ambiguity and the consequences of violence and revenge, I expect the show will do a better job of maintaining viewers’ suspension of disbelief than the game did.

Of course, there are deficits to adapting a video game to the TV format as well. The zombies often felt like a secondary or even tertiary threat to Joel and Ellie, which is a far cry from the game where their savagery is ever-present. I could bash the show’s creators for this decision, but realistically, mowing down legions of the creatures is only engaging in the context of a game. The handful of action sequences we did get were appropriately tense – in excess, the effect would’ve been lost.

Since the show debuted in January, many have been touting that “The Last of Us” has officially ended the game-to-screen adaptation curse. While I admire their enthusiasm, I’m beginning to question just how many excellent adaptations we have to watch before people begin to accept that it’s no longer a revolutionary concept.

In the past two years alone, audiences have received very decent “Uncharted,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” films and a handful of great shows – namely “Arcane,” “The Cuphead Show!” and “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.” Sonic is currently on his sixth show since 1993, Castlevania is set to receive a second series and hype is brimming for “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” on track to be released April 5.

If anything, it’s safe to say the curse has been lifted for a while now, and the entertainment industry is looking to lean hard into game-to-screen adaptations over the coming years. Film treatments for Borderlands, Duke Nukem, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Just Cause, Metal Gear, Pac-Man, Portal, Saints Row, Minecraft and many other top names have already been announced.

Sega in particular is betting big on the new fad, with plans to release films pertaining even to lesser-known franchises like Yakuza, Streets of Rage and even Space Channel 5. They’ve been a financially conservative company for a couple of decades now, so confidence is high and there’s clearly money to be made.

While it’s unfair to credit “The Last of Us” with ending the video game adaptation curse, it nevertheless stands out as an excellent example of storytelling done right no matter the medium. Although HBO hasn’t given us a release window just yet, I’ll be eagerly awaiting season two.

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