Few other titles stir up as much emotion or opinion as Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, and it remains one of the best examples of how video games can deliver storytelling that is as good, if not better than cinema and TV. Along with that comes an almost unique worry though. A worry that no sequel could ever be as impressive, and that any adaptation would fail to do it justice.
Well, heading towards the game's tenth anniversary, we now have both of those things, so is the legacy intact? I would say emphatically yes! The sequel and TV series each add stories and profound moments all of their own, but there are some little things here and there that do detract from the original for me...
[ Note: The rest of this article contains mature content & significant story spoilers from The Last of Us ]
- THE LAST OF US // NAUGHTY DOG -
This is not intended to be a punitive comparison or opposition to change, and there absolutely are things that improve upon the 2013 story. Take Episode 3 of the HBO series for example; titled "Long, Long Time", it focuses almost entirely on Bill who creates his own isolated existence in "Bill's Town", just like in the game.
However, the show seizes the opportunity to expand on his under-developed character and to fully introduce Frank. In doing so, they take an implied relationship / companionship and flesh it out into a complete and utterly heart-breaking story about love, shared lifetimes, and the inexorable fact that such things must eventually come to an end.
Yes, it deviates significantly from the source material, but it is all the better for that and I would even go as far as to say that it may be the most powerful piece of storytelling that I've seen on television!
Other changes are admittedly less well-received, like swapping the perfectly plausible fungal spores for the entirely less believable tendrils, and a rather forced idea of a hive mind for instance, but these are not the sort of things I really wanted to talk about.
Sometimes the tiniest detail can drastically change the meaning or perception of a scene, so here are 5 occasions (so far) where the story from The Last of Us lost some important nuance.
The first encounter with an infected human in both the game and the TV series comes in the form of Joel & Sarah's neighbours, and in each case Joel kills them to protect himself and his daughter.
In the game, Sarah is visibly stunned as Joel shoots Jimmy and immediately remarks "You shot him" as she starts to process what just happened. The real nuance lies in her next line though because, although Joel grabs her by the shoulders and tries to get her attention, Sarah remains fixed on what she has seen and simply adds "I saw him this mornin' ".
"You shot him...I saw him this mornin' "
It seems innocuous, but the mundanity of this remark is what makes it such a powerful commentary on the shift from every-day-life to catastrophe. Played out through the stark realisation of a young girl, this moment marks the last semblance of normality and from here on, nothing can ever be the same again.
In the TV reimagining, Sarah instead ventures into the neighbour's house and is chased into the street by a tendril-spitting elderly woman. Joel again puts an end to this with a precise blow of a heavy wrench and Sarah similarly remarks "You killed her".
The trouble is that the scene immediately moves on to an explanation of the grim new reality and doesn't leave that same time to adjust. It is a small omission, but that extra moment spent realising that normality is now a memory makes all the difference.
- THE LAST OF US // SARAH -
The Soldier's Concern
As the culmination of the game's famously heart-breaking prologue, this scene was always going to be heavily scrutinised when remade and the TV series actually does a great job with it. Sarah's death is as devastating as it ever was, but another tiny piece of dialogue changes one aspect of it.
Carrying Sarah after escaping a terrifying chase, Joel is stopped by a quarantine soldier who aims his rifle through dazzling torch light. Despite Joel's claims that the pair are not sick, the soldier calls it in to his superiors and in the original script is heard saying "Sir, there's a little girl. But... Yes Sir" before raising him weapon again and opening fire.
"Sir, there's a little girl. But...Yes Sir!"
It is a line that tells of the soldier's compassion and reluctance to do what is being asked of him, and how that compassion is being disregarded by someone who is thinking on a less personal level.
In the HBO version, the soldier's conversation is a much more one-sided series of "Yes Sirs" and an apology made directly to Joel as he approaches to finish the job after the first round of fire. The mention of a young girl being there is completely missing.
In my opinion and despite the stunning cinematography, the soldier's lines are a poor substitute that leaves him showing more remorse for shooting at Joel a second time than for taking the life of a child. The simple question is, why leave it out?
Tess Realising Ellie's Importance
Overlooking the decision to switch the FEDRA threat for a Days Gone-style hoard, and the tenuous tendril-based detection that draws them to the capitol building, subtle differences in how Tess tries to convince Joel of Ellie's importance change this scene both for better and worse, or maybe it is simply different.
The way that Tess draws attention to Ellie's bitten arm as evidence that her immunity is real is delivered with so much urgency in the original game. OK, simply stating that her own bite is already worse than Ellie's now 3-week old wound is a little on-the-nose, but it emphasises how Tess now grasps the gravity of what Ellie may be. The show instead puts a focus on Tess' rapid deterioration which, even without that display of urgency, does bring a whole new dimension to why she feels the importance.
"This is f*cking real..."
The roles are then reversed as the scene progresses; where the game leans towards a tender appeal from Tess as she moves close to Joel and says "there's enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me" in reference to their past relationship, the HBO script now brings back that sense of desperation.
Starting to list things she has never asked Joel for, Tess gets as far as "not to feel the way I felt" before cutting to the chase. Both conjure the idea of a past and damaged relationship between the pair, but the new version tells us more about what didn't work; specifically that Joel may have shut her out and never quite reciprocated Tess' feelings.
"I never ask you for anything. Not to feel the way I felt..."
After giving it some thought, I actually prefer the new one.
Sticking with the same scene, the way that Tess sacrifices herself is already iconic in both the game and TV series. The fact that she is trying to buy Joel and Ellie some time to escape while also accepting her own demise is at the heart of this scene, though each version takes a dramatically different approach.
After convincing Joel to do the logical thing and get Ellie to safety, video game Tess is seen clearly fighting the emotional pain of this herself before she takes a breath, composes herself and hardens up – ready for one last stand. As the player, you leave her behind and feel the sense of separation without needing to see anything more.
- THE LAST OF US // TESS -
For the TV series, the camera stays with Tess as she continues to succumb to the effects of the infection while Joel and Ellie leave. Less able to fight and not resistive to an approaching infected male, she is subject to an invasive "kiss" that is intended to portray infection in the absence of violence.
It is a shocking scene but, on first viewing at least, it does venture into the bizarre in a way that actually distracts from the poignancy of Tess' final act. One thing for certain though, if this had been the version that came first, there would be outrage if it was ever altered.
Undermining the Ending
Everything so far has been about comparing the first game and the TV series, but easily my biggest gripe when it comes to anything about The Last of Us is how the original ending has been undermined by the sequel.
This first requires some explanation of that ending, or at least how I have always perceived that ending. After Joel kills the doctor(s) – an act that is fundamental to the events of Part II – and rescues Ellie from the research that would have taken her life to develop a Cordyceps cure, Ellie eventually wakes and asks what happened. Blatantly lying, Joel says that there were dozens more like Ellie and that it has not helped to find a cure, leaving Ellie understandably dejected.
- THE LAST OF US // PART I -
A short epilogue later, Ellie gives context to her depression by revealing that she was "waiting for her turn" in reference to the loss of her friend and not wanting to be the survivor, before asking Joel to swear that everything her told her was true. Joel doubles down on the lie and, looking more ready to move on than convinced, Ellie simply replies "OK" and the credits roll!
It's an astonishing moment that surely implies that they both know that the truth lies elsewhere and are choosing the selfish option, to continue to survive together and to be something for each other to fight for, even if that comes at the expense of the rest of mankind. A profound display of the power of love and companionship.
- THE LAST OF US // PART II -
Fast-forward to the middle of The Last of Us Part II, and we find that Ellie learns that there were no others with immunity and Joel admits the truth about what he did at the hospital. Ellie reacts hysterically, which would ordinarily be understandable, but for that to work, we must be expected to believe that she had never suspected Joel's lie.
If that is the case, then Ellie's seemingly profound "OK" becomes little more than massive naivety and means that her reason to keep surviving was just that there was nothing better to die for. I'm sorry, but that's one version that I have no love for.
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