What It Means that HBO’s The Last of Us Is Good

Book-to-film adaptations can be hit or miss, but it seems like a rule that video-game-to-film adaptations are always bad. Good and bad in any artform are, of course, matters of taste, but there’s a persistent, nagging sentiment in popular media that, when filmmakers consider a video game adaptation, they take its success and built-in fan adoration for granted. Producers wield more power than actual talented filmmakers and writers, and the whole affair leans further into entertainment for entertainment’s sake, because the popular sentiment of video games is still driven by people who think Mario and Luigi saving Princess Peach from Bowser’s clutches is the standard in video game storytelling. 

(Relevant note: The plot of the forthcoming Mario adaptation is that Mario and Peach are trying to save Luigi from Bowser this time.)

I consider myself a little weird as a fiction writer with some academic decoration, because I am a life-long gamer. We’re not as weird as you’d think, it turns out, but in many literary circles, video games are still considered anathema to good storytelling. I think, considering some of the truly great writing and storytelling I’ve experienced through video games in my life, that’s tragic. The literary world is warming up to TV and films as legitimate mediums for good writing, but video games are still viewed as a medium for children despite the average age of a gamer being 33, and their artistic validity beyond their use of art as resources is still questioned

(Sure, this is an old post, and Ebert is a bit of a punching bag on the subject, but it’s illustrative of the argument, which I’d argue is flawed because the distinctions he made aren’t independently exclusive, but that’s not what this post is about.)

This year, HBO released a series adapting a video game called The Last of Us, which was developed by video game studio Naughty Dog. I played that game in 2013, and it not only redefined for me what good storytelling is in video games, but it also demonstrated a new potential for immersive storytelling experiences that only video games can provide: in this way, I felt The Last of Us offered new justification not only for the validity of video games as art but that we should consider video games a new artform in their own right.

I can’t overstate the profound effect this game had on me as a storyteller, and it isn’t a game that made me want to make games. It’s a game that made me want to tell better stories, and I think that’s important: the influence The Last of Us had on me transcends the medium.

I can’t think of a better definition for art.

The Last of Us carved out a cherished place in the video game industry as a landmark game for good, affecting storytelling, so when HBO announced its plans for an adaptation, given the history of poor adaptations, fans were anxious. Even as signs HBO was putting serious investment into the project (such as Craig Mazin and game-creator Neil Druckmann being in charge), fans had to guard their hearts.

The season finale airs this Sunday, and having viewed eight episodes (and having listened to every episode of the fantastic podcast of showrunner commentary), I think it’s okay to declare HBO’s The Last of Us is good. It’s great, even. It’s a video-game-to-film adaptation that not only accurately and faithfully portrays the storytelling in the game but also does not require exposure to the game to fully appreciate. As the game stands in that medium’s industry, HBO’s The Last of Us will stand in the film industry. It’s a landmark in its own right. It’s a successful adaptation that compels wider audiences with its fidelity.

That isn’t to say it’s perfect, of course. I have some notes, which I won’t discuss here. However, while good and bad are matters of taste, this adaptation’s success is not. HBO’s The Last of Us hits a target other video-game adaptations didn’t even think was possible, which is significant in its own right. 

However, I think what makes this one so significant is that it’s an inherent argument for the legitimacy of storytelling in games, because its fidelity resonates in this other medium.

The Last of Us is a great story regardless of how it presents itself.

What Makes an Adaptation Good?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about adaptations in general. There are varying schools of thought here, and I attend my own. This is a bit of a digression, but please try to follow my logic.

When I taught literature at GMU, I included adaptation in the curriculum because I wanted my students to see that great storytelling transcends its medium. I established a baseline for adaptation that the “source” piece in any adaptation is not actually the source as we conventionally believe it to be. A discipline called “book history” has sort of established itself relatively recently in academia, and one of its tenets is that not only does a piece of media (such as a book) have its own identity and history, but also that the ideas contained within are separate and distinct from the medium in which it’s presented. In other words, if you read one edition of a book and then read another edition of that book (or listen to the audiobook edition), those are separate and distinct experiences. It follows, then, that the content of a piece of media and the way it’s presented are separate and distinct. 

If you accept that, it follows that the true source material for a story is not the first work created to represent it but the very ideas from which they were conceived. That means the true source material exists only in the mind of the author. But it gets wonkier: the ideas existed in the mind of the author at the time they wrote the work. 

All of that logic webbing means, to find the true source material, our only option is to dig into the first work the artist created and find the inspiration, core material, the spirit, whatever you want to call it, that gives it identity. 

I admit I’ve twisted some ideas, theories, and philosophies to suit my own purposes here, but my argument is the quality of an adaptation can’t be defined by virtue of its fidelity to the first work in which those ideas appeared. Rather, an adaptation’s quality is determined by the respect it grants the work’s identity by understanding what the first work attempts to do and sets those same goals for the new medium based on the shared core, spiritual, thematic, etc. ideas. In this way, a film adaptation has creative license to change elements as long as the changes still serve that true source material.

In my literature class, we read books and stories and watched their film adaptations, and we analyzed how some films logistically told the story differently but still arrived at and presented the same ideas as the books on which they were based. We also looked at adaptations that invented completely new elements that were never in the first version. From there, we established a baseline for what good and bad adaptations look like. 

In short, when a film adaptation seeks core and spiritual ideas outside of the ones existent in the first work, it violates a pact it shares with that first work and becomes something else entirely: a work inspired by the first, not an adaptation of it.

The good ones, though? They offer new interpretations and ruminations on the same ideas. They let us see the story and characters from different angles. They compliment the first work in a way that we can study them together for holistic purposes. They are expertly crafted pairings that augment and amplify each other instead of working independently of each other.

What Does It Mean that HBO’s The Last of Us Is Good?

And it is, you know? It’s good. Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckman (along with their cast and crew) did a great job with it. Not only is it a compelling series in its own right, it respectfully adapts the video game because it seriously considers the same core ideas and spirit. It’s complementary instead of dissociative. The series alters the story at times. It cuts material and makes additions but always with the same goals, chasing the same spirits, because the filmmakers loved those goals and spirits (there is no worse indication for an adaptation than the adaptor lacking passion for that which they are adapting). Thus, the series can be viewed in companionship with the game. The cuts from the game can be filled in by playing the game. The expansions to the story in the series can augment and amplify the experience of playing the game. Together, they form a compelling experience with two distinct artistic mediums sharing a common story.

But why does this matter?

By creating a series with such fidelity and respect for the video game it seeks to adapt, the film series lends its medium’s artistic validity to the source medium. In other words, we now have a film series that is faithfully adapted from a video game, and it’s successful and compelling. HBO’s The Last of Us is a worthwhile series because of its quality, but the fact that it’s faithful to the video game suggests the video game is a landmark artistic achievement in its own right (and it is). More important, it suggests video games can achieve such artistic heights as this.

In other words, HBO’s The Last of Us inherently demonstrates the storytelling potential of video games.

As a relevant byproduct of the adaptation being good, its popularity elevates some critical achievements the game made first. Perhaps most important of these achievements is its strides in representation. The show front loads LGBTQIA+ characters in a way most other shows don’t: it features them in meaningful storylines in which the characters are not solely defined by their identities. The show presents them to us as human beings first and foremost. Moreover, where the game sort of sneaks these characters by players, the show doesn’t hesitate to dedicate an entire episode to a loving relationship that just so happens to be gay or to reveal the sexuality of a character we’ve already fallen in love with. The treatment is moving and humanizing but also has a normalization effect because the series knows and respects the role it plays in representation.

On the identity front, one thing the series does that resonates with me personally (I’m a man, after all) is the show’s representation of men. In an era of TV media that I might describe as post-Breaking Bad (the popularity of the anti-hero seems to have waned), leading male characters have become unrealistically idealized. Many popular shows on television feature men portrayed as flawlessly sensitive, caring, and considerate. Arguments end with the male character’s apology, and the male character always shows deference to democracy in decision making.

The benefits and drawbacks of that kind of character popularized in storytelling is worth discussing, but the point for this post is that is not Joel in The Last of Us. Joel is flawed. He has trouble apologizing, and he hides his own controlling nature behind the idea that he is Ellie’s guardian and father-figure, as if she does not have a choice (and the story makes a point of demonstrating to us she absolutely does). However, Joel is no less understandable or sympathetic. I might describe him as an anti-hero seeking reformation. We see him trying, and we see him struggling with the very compulsions in his masculine nature. We see him questioning everything he thought was right because other natural compulsions (i.e., his capacity for love) create tension and conflict.

All of this is what makes Joel a compelling male character: He has demons, and he is wrestling with them. We get to see that. This is an honest representation of the male condition that’s been lacking on TV for years (if it’s ever been portrayed to such depth).

Finally, this series just makes some very difficult narrative decisions and takes some incredible risks. The fact that it’s popular may continue to be a test as we tune in for future seasons, but for now, season one of The Last of Us, a series based off of a video game, has done some things that would give most TV series makers terrifying pause, and audiences have stuck with it. In this way, this series has advanced TV as a popular medium because it has tested audiences with risks.

Again, if we want to be so reductive as to separate art from entertainment (something I generally don’t like to do), I can’t think of a much better definition than that.

Why Is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Video Game Worthwhile?

I’ve long advocated for video games as a serious storytelling medium (ever since 16-bit Chrono Trigger on Super Nintendo ran away with my heartstrings). For about a decade, I’ve pointed to The Last of Us as a new gold standard for what video games can do with storytelling, and now we have a TV series that honors that legacy by doing the same for its medium. All of the series’ successes belong, in tandem, to the game as well, and while good film adaptations are uncommon, a story telling itself across multiple mediums and breaking ground in each of those respective mediums is rare if not without precedent.

If you’ve enjoyed watching HBO’s series, you don’t have to play the game; however, because it’s a good adaptation, playing the game will offer a new lens with which to view this amazing, compelling story wrought with heartache, yearning, sacrifice, and even some joy. 

That said, if I’ve argued for nothing else here, Naughty Dog’s game is worthwhile as an artifact, a piece of art that has established a legacy for video games and now film. It’s worthwhile as a piece of art that explored some meaningful, compelling, and moving ideas regarding what it means to be a human being, and it has inspired and influenced subsequent works of art, now including a very successful film series.

It’s a historic piece of artwork, and it’s a video game that planted its first flag with its storytelling. That’s something I think any artist, especially ones working with narrative, should appreciate.