HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ enchants fans new and old alike

While characters like Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) seem hardened and cold, their humanity comes through in the vulnerability they attempt to hide. | Photo courtesy of HBO MAX

Gamers tend to have negative opinions when it comes to TV adaptations of their favorite video games, believing that their beloved characters cannot be recreated faithfully. But these fears are entirely squashed by the masterpiece that HBO has put together for “The Last of Us.” With five episodes out so far, “The Last of Us” strikes a perfect balance between replicating and reinventing the original material. It also recreates the incredible graphics of the game — breathtaking visuals of nature reclaiming cities joust with grotesque, infected humans. Most importantly, this adaptation delivers on the human element that made the game so powerful.

Like the video game, HBO’s “The Last of Us” can create realistic and dimensional characters with little screen time to work with. We see that Joel, Tess and Ellie have all suffered tremendously in this apocalyptic world, and the emotional effects are clear. Ellie is vulgar and aggressively pragmatic, Tess is jaded and remorseless and Joel is cold and stuck in his years of grief.

Despite their tough exteriors, there is a beautiful layer of vulnerability in each of the actors’ portrayals of these survivors. Hints of caring natures and dreams of a brighter future come through for each of the three, especially when it comes to the surrogate parent-child dynamic that forms between Joel and Ellie. They bring the humanity out in each other, and their reluctant journey to find a sense of kinship is as awkward and painful as it is beautiful.

If you are a longtime fan of the game, you might worry that watching this saga will feel too repetitive of the game’s plot points. But this could not be further from the truth. The show uses the original plot as a backbone but fills in the details behind many of those events to a degree that the game could not, partially thanks to its longer run time. Each hint falls into place masterfully, particularly in the depiction of outbreak day. That extra backstory is enough to keep both old fans enriched and new fans engaged. More importantly, it turns the show’s runtime into an ongoing mystery that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Blink once, and you will miss something critical.

Another concern fans of the video game have is that it might deviate too much from the original. And, it is true, there is an amount of reinvention that is necessary to modernize the story. But any deviations from the original plot are done for a very good purpose, since they make the themes of the original sing even truer. The core of the story is the same: the devotion of a found family and the many struggles they encounter on the way.and the many pits and struggles they encounter on the way.

The game instilled feelings of horror in players by putting them in the driver seat of a fight for survival. This doesn’t quite translate to a film format, but the series makes up for it by bringing innovative body horror to the max. In nature, what the Cordyceps fungus does to its hosts is grotesque, and any film adaptation must keep true to that fact. Makeup artists fashion photorealistic clickers with split head prosthetics. Accurate effects make mycelium threads writhe from host mouths and fruiting fungi grow through flesh and bone. If you can make it through this grotesquely real series without a hint of nausea, you truly have a steel resolve.

Unfortunately, there are a few too many times where the immersive factor of the game falls flat. American viewers may struggle with the voices of Australian Anna Torv (Tess) or British Bella Ramsey (Ellie), who create mostly convincing American accents, except for the times the filter slips. More importantly, Hollywood once more makes the mistake of casting the privileged to play the underprivileged. Post-apocalyptic smugglers who grew up impoverished under a military regime should not talk like they’ve had years of elocution training. They should talk like they’re from the streets. At times, it is difficult to swallow the way some of these characters communicate, but that is a constant problem in entertainment. While the show has been rightfully praised for its diverse casting, there may be a lack of representation of different classes.

Despite brief lapses in immersion, the world building of the series is overall fantastic. The QZ (quarantine zone) is maintained by harsh military rule, and it is almost as savage as the wastes that lie outside its walls. In the QZ, there are summary executions, bombings, shooting and horrendous violence from both the military and the rebel militia. Outside the QZ, there are mindless, violent infected and ruthless raiders, slavers and worse.

All of this chaos and suffering gives deep context to the way the characters act, knowing that their peaceful world went up in flames without warning. In “The Last of Us,” civilization as we know it is destroyed by a humble fungus that finds its way into the food supply. A silent killer.

All this horror allows the crystallization of the strongest themes from the original. Save who you can and cherish what you have because it can all be taken away at the drop of a hat.

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