Video game live-action adaptations have always had a somewhat complicated reputation. As much as they’re now seen as a veritable art form, the truth is that most video games’ plots remain relatively straightforward on paper, which is usually not the best-case scenario for drama shows or movies.
Perhaps this is why Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us wooed critics when it was released on PlayStation 3. A game that effortlessly incorporated some of the best aspects of interactive storytelling with a solid, movie-quality plot is something that happens once in a blue moon, which explains why HBO greenlit the project so quickly.
That said, as much critical praise as The Last of Us garnered, the game has always been the subject of online controversy. This fate is something that the game and the show have in common, especially now that the series’ third episode has just been released.
Third Time’s the Charm
The Last of Us, much like the game it’s based on, has received rave reviews left and right. Critics praised the series’ pacing in the first two episodes, which were relatively faithful to the source material. However, this is the age of the internet we’re living on, and belligerent negative comments are just par for the course for a show like The Last of Us.
Episode three continues Joel and Ellie‘s journey through a derelict American town. The episode focuses on the Lincoln chapter of the game, where the duo meets Bill, a fellow survivor. In the game, Bill is merely a one-off character whose backstory is never fully realized, but that changes drastically in the show.
It’s safe to say that episode three feels vastly different from the rest of the series so far. The Last of Us – the show and the video game – always focuses more on the human drama rather than the more visceral aspects of the cordyceps apocalypse. However, when it comes to human drama, this episode takes the cake.
In the game, we learn that Bill had a companion named Frank. Soon, it becomes apparent that Bill and Frank‘s relationship is much more intimate than that. However, the show goes one step beyond that what we saw in the game, further humanizing Bill and Frank as fully-fledged characters rather than just another part of the huge ensemble of survivors seen in The Last of Us.
However, as touching as the episode might be, the reactions to it have been as diverse as they come, ranging from complete praise to pure hatred.
It seems like the most successful video game adaptations frequently diverge from their source material. We saw this happening in both “Sonic the Hedgehog” films, for example. However, The Last of Us is the first time that a video game of this magnitude gets a successful live-action adaptation, so we might be heading into a bit of uncharted territory here. No, that comment has nothing to do with the unsuccessful “Uncharted” film released in 2022.
The original The Last of Us game takes approximately fifteen hours to complete. Considering the HBO show’s first season will last nine episodes, we’re probably looking forward to at least two seasons worth of only the first game in the series.
This is why some die-hard fans of the original game seem to be worried by the direction the show’s taken with its latest episode. Bill and Frank‘s storyline, as touching as it might be, offers a severe departure from the game’s narrative. Why the showrunners focused on such a minor character like Bill could be an indication that there are plans to make the first game’s storyline last as long as possible.
Just a glimpse at the show’s numbers tells us all we need to know about why HBO decided to move away from the main story. According to HBO, viewership for The Last of Us grew 12% between episodes two and three: that’s a total of 6.4 million viewers that tuned in to see “Long, Long Time.”
Comparatively, House of the Dragon was already bleeding viewers by the time of its third episode’s release. It seems like all the buzz surrounding the episode paid off for HBO. However, not all comments target the episode’s departure from the source material as the only negative.
Some less-than-amicable comments target the homosexual relationship at the center of the episode as the reason why the show’s going downhill (in their eyes.) However, as we pointed out before, the characters were already gay in the game, so it’s more than a bit strange to see that someone would find an issue with something that was already well-established in the video game nearly ten years ago.
Finding a Compromise
As much as the original The Last of Us video game resembles a film, we have to remember that TV and video games are vastly different mediums. In the end, there’s no “right way” to do a live-action adaptation such as this, especially when the track record for video game TV and film adaptations has been so muddy.
What episode three did was show both fans of The Last of Us and HBO Max subscribers that the series isn’t afraid to deliver new and unique insights into the characters created by Neil Druckman and the team at Naughty Dog.
Some changes need to be made to the source material for it to reach a larger audience. If the episode had followed the same events as what we saw in the game, “Long, Long Time” would have been about Joel and Ellie‘s frantic search for batteries and bricks. Instead, it became so much more.
Whether or not this departure from the source material indicates what the rest of The Last of Us series will be like remains open for debate, but one thing is for sure: HBO‘s latest series has just had its Red Wedding moment with this episode, and it will become a serious contender for one of the most powerful dramatic performances of the year.
One thing is for sure: the episode perfectly captures what The Last of Us – both the show and the game – is about. As bleak as some of the episodes might be, we still might find some comfort in how beautifully shot and masterfully directed the series has been so far. Here’s hoping that the series can keep this momentum going for the rest of the season which – as fans of the game may know – gets pretty harrowing near the end.