While video game adaptations have had a rough history, it finally looks like the entertainment industry has found a way to bring justice to classic games. Recently, both Sonic the Hedgehog and Uncharted were box office hits, and Super Mario Bros. is expected to be one of the biggest films of this year. However, there’s probably not been a more anticipated adaptation ever than The Last of Us, HBO’s series inspired by the 2013 game of the same name. The Last of Us is as much a story of trauma and grief as it is a post-apocalyptic adventure, and the creative team behind it reflects the more serious implications of the narrative.
The Last of Us follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler who agrees to transport the young girl Ellie (Bella Ramsay) to safety across a post-apocalyptic version of the United States. The breakout of a mutant Cordyceps fungus caused humans to turn into zombie-like creatures known as the Infected, creating widespread panic and societal collapse. Early on in the crisis, Joel lost his daughter. Ellie is also struggling with trauma; she was nearly killed by an infected, only escaping with a bite mark that reveals her immunity to the mutation.
The series takes place two decades after the outbreak, but Joel is still processing his grief when he agrees to smuggle Ellie out of the quarantine zone. The series has a co-creator who is fit to handle the emotionally haunting material with Craig Mazin, the Emmy-winning showrunner behind HBO’s acclaimed historical drama Chernobyl. While Mazin is directing one installment in the first season, he’s joined by an incredible set of filmmakers who reflect the themes of the game.
Iran filmmaker Ali Abbasi broke out in a major way with his haunting dark fantasy film Border, which featured incredible Oscar-nominated makeup and prosthetic designs for the film’s troll characters. Border explores how outsiders deal with the grief of being hated by society and focuses on the horrors of a child pornography ring. It signified that Abbasi could interweave genre elements into a story about healing from trauma, which will obviously play a major role in The Last of Us.
Abbasi has also received acclaim this year for his new film Holy Spider, another story of stigmatization and grief that follows an investigation into the murder of sex workers in Iran. Based on a true story, the film explores the female journalist Zar Amir Ebrahimi who tracks down the crimes of Saeed Hanaei, a real serial killer who was executed in 2002. The mix of exciting thriller elements with gripping material signifies that Abbasi is the perfect choice to helm The Last of Us’ complex tone.
In addition to award-nominated filmmakers like Abassi, The Last of Us has also employed veteran television directors. Jeremy Webb has worked on such acclaimed shows as The Umbrella Academy, Altered Carbon, Shadow & Bone, and Masters of Sex.
He’s shown an ability to create haunting backstories through his episode focusing on Frank Castle’s (Jon Bernthal) post-traumatic stress disorder in The Punisher, where he examined how the murder of the titular character’s family continues to haunt him; like Joel, Frank tries to resume his profession as a way to ignore his heartbreak. Webb also explored David Haller’s (Dan Stevens) mental illness in Legion; the X-Men spinoff series shows how trauma, anxiety, and discrimination have turned Davis into an outsider, even amidst his new mutant allies.
Obviously, the writer and the creative director of the original game is an obvious choice to ensure that the series remains tonally consistent with his initial vision. The Last of Us was praised not just for its gameplay, but for its story and writing that truly felt cinematic. The game also showed that Druckmann could work with actors to bring the quality of screen performances; Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson brought the emotional intensity of a feature film. Druckmann showed his belief in a more dramatic adaptation during the development of a planned film adaptation produced by Sam Raimi; he refused to accept studio mandates to include more action sequences in place of emotional moments.
Another television veteran with genre credits including The Umbrella Academy, Daredevil, Doctor Who, and The Defenders, Peter Hoar proved he could reduce an audience to tears with the incredible miniseries It’s A Sin. The miniseries chronicles the experiences of LGBT teenagers in the 1980s as they struggle amidst the AIDS crisis. While It’s A Sin celebrates the beauty of these characters, it doesn’t shy away from how they had to deal with discrimination and hate speech amidst the most frightening period of their lives. Hoar’s experience showing the grief of younger characters will be particularly important for the depiction of Ellie in The Last of Us.
The Last of Us subverts many of the clichés in post-apocalyptic storytelling and recontextualizes familiar genre tropes in favor of a more realistic story. This is something that filmmaker Liza Johnson knows how to do, as she explored the deeply cynical root of America’s pop culture and military obsession in her satirical biopic Elvis & Nixon. The film forces President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and “The King of Rock’n’Roll” (Michael Shannon) to recognize that they are no longer relevant in an evolving nation. Additionally, Johnson has shown that she can bring dark, reclusive anti-heroes to life with her work on Barry and Sneaky Pete.
Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić created one of the most “difficult to watch” war films in recent memory with Quo Vadis, Aida?, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best International Feature Film. The film explores the Srebrenica massacre through the eyes of a schoolteacher who watches both the adults and children in her community sent to their death. Like The Last of Us, the film explores a bleak reality through an individual experience, which somehow makes it even more heartbreaking and disturbing. Žbanić’s unflinching approach to the material and unfiltered depiction of violence will certainly set a bleak tone for The Last of Us.