Warning: This article contains spoilers for the start of the series and for The Last of Us gameplay.
In 2013, screenwriter Neil Druckmann and developer Naughty Dog traumatized a generation of gamers with what could be the most devastating start in video game history (until The Last of Us: Part II). The Last of Us opens infamously as a punch, having the player watch as a devastated Joel holds his dying daughter in his arms in the midst of a raging zombie apocalypse. It’s one of the things that made The Last of Us the cornerstone it is today.establishing an integral part of our protagonist’s motivations and setting the stage for an emotionally draining game.
So, How do you go about adapting it to a television series? Apparently making it even more heartbreaking. Series directors Druckmann and Craig Mazin could have done a literal adaptation of the beginning of the game and it would still be an effective introduction, but instead they give us valuable time with Sarah (Nico Parker) and take the opportunity to gradually create a chilling tension. The end result, Sarah’s death in the arms of Joel (Pedro Pascal), is the same, but the journey to get there is a key example of how adaptations can build on their predecessors while remaining faithful to them.
What has changed and what remains the same as in the game
The TV series doesn’t change the introduction so much, but expands on it. In fact, it literally doubles the length of the intro; in-game, it takes about 15 minutes to go from hitting the play button to seeing the opening title, while the series runs longer, spending 34 minutes setting up the setting before jumping forward 20 years. Of those 34 minutes, only about 10 are dedicated directly to adapting scenes from the game.specifically, the moment when Joel, Sarah and Tommy (Gabriel Luna) book to leave the city, and remain faithful to the source to the point of showing Joel choosing to continue driving next to a family that pleads for help .
What fills in the other 24 minutes? First up, some context for the virus the characters are about to face, with a snippet from a 1968 talk show in which doctors explain the threat a certain type of fungus could pose to the human race. (Interestingly, the game saved its terrified reporting snippets for after the initial intro, placing them over the opening credits that follow the title.) This serves, again, to build a bit of tension before we basically get to see a day in the life of Sarah.
The TV series does not rush to its death. Instead, we spent precious time with her, seeing the world through his eyes hours before it descends into chaos. We don’t start at night, but at breakfast, with her making eggs for Joel’s birthday. From there, we see her live from day to day: going to school, going into town to fix Joel’s watch, begrudgingly spending time with the neighbors, and watching in horror as the pandemic begins to unfold.
Why are the changes important?
Considering Sarah is still dead at the premiere, these additions might just seem like an indulgent way to stretch out an episode that’s already 86 minutes long. But it is clear that Druckmann and Mazin (co-authors of the episode) have a more considered goal, based on add weight to Sarah’s final death. There is humanity in the mundane, and seeing her perform these seemingly unimportant actions allows us to get to know her better as a character, which makes us grow fonder of her.
In the morning, we get to know her as a caretaker of sorts, making sure her dad gets a birthday breakfast, while also intertwining some lovely banter between her, Joel, and Tommy. And in the game, although we did see her give the fixed watch to Joel, we did not see what he thought to go to the city to repair it. And when she’s out with the Adlers, it’s clear she’s not thrilled to be there, but she’s a devoted enough daughter to comply with Joel’s request without arguing too much.
There is something powerful and, above all, humanizing in seeing what you are doing
Seeing all of this, we get a significant insight into his personality, something the game didn’t bother to do. Of course, we knew the in-game Sarah because of how amusing she was joking around with Joel on the couch (the quip “Drugs. I sell hard drugs” survives in the series), and how thoughtful she was about giving him the gift of the watch. . but there is something powerful and most importantly humanizing in seeing what it is doing, instead of just knowing that it happened somewhere offscreen. It paints the picture of a more real character that we can relate to and empathize with, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when she is inevitably killed off. I’m not going to compare Pedro Pascal’s performance to Troy Baker’s (both are absolutely heartbreaking in Sarah’s death scene), but on the show, we don’t just cry over Joel losing his daughter; we also cry for a character we got to know.
In that sense, it has the added advantage of make you think that she will be the protagonist if you don’t know And since HBO is marketing the series well beyond those who have played the game, there are going to be a lot of people who don’t know that Sarah won’t live to see the end of the episode. She doesn’t rise to the level of “beheading Ned Stark”, but she is nonetheless shocking to the unaware audience and gives them an idea of what is at stake.
Sarah is also our anchor as the outbreak unfolds, and this is where I would be remiss not to praise the performance of Nico Parker, no matter how ephemeral. As Sarah, she’s always likeable and charming, and the tear that slips from her as she struggles to keep her cool as Tommy and Joel rush to get them out of town is a brilliant little touch. Putting viewers in her shoes makes the tension more effective as well, with Parker showing true terror at seeing the Adlers battered. And that shot of old Adler, Connie, subtly displaying symptoms in the background while Sarah reads a DVD case? Chilling.
What it could mean for the series
As with any adaptation, one of the main questions that HBO’s The Last of Us asks is how far it will deviate from the source material. But that question weighs more heavily on this adaptation than others, as The Last of Us’ story could easily be transferred to TV without much retouching and still be fascinating. After all, there is more than one compilation on YouTube that tells a compelling story simply by linking together the most important scenes from The Last of Us.
But the best adaptations are not only those that do justice to the story, but the ones that make it evolve, those that take advantage of the medium to fill in the gaps in the construction of characters and the world. Plus, he gives Druckmann, the screenwriter behind it all, a chance to improve on his own work from a decade ago, a chance many writers would kill for. You can’t judge a TV adaptation by its premiere alone (34 minutes of that premiere, no less), but by reworking one of the most iconic scenes from his own game, Druckmann has made it clear that he won’t rest on his storytelling laurels in this one. chance.
This also means that fans still reeling from the devastation of the game (and, it must be said, the emotional destruction of The Last of Us: Part II) will have to suffer a lot more. But hey, at least this time you won’t be tearing up your controller, right?