Hollywood has mostly failed to adapt successful video games into satisfying series and films. In an interview, the creators of this new zombie thriller explain why it can be the exception.
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By Conor Dougherty
When “The Last of Us” came out in 2013, the hit video game’s premise — a fungus turns people into zombies, leaving society in shambles, and what government remains is controlled by fascists — seemed squarely in the realm of fiction. A decade later, an HBO series based on the game is set to be released, on Sunday, to a public that has grown all too familiar with the possibility of a germ apocalypse.
The reality of what the world has been through over the past three years is alluded to in a chilling opening scene in which a pair of scientists describe the risk of various pathogens to a talk show audience. After one of them describes something like Covid-19, the other silences both the fictional crowd and us when he expounds upon the ways in which a warmed-up planet could lead to something much, much worse.
“Part of writing for an audience is just feeling in your bones what is cultural knowledge,” said Craig Mazin, one of the showrunners. “On the other hand, it’s not a show about the pandemic — it’s about what it means to survive and what’s the purpose of survival. So we get that out of the way pretty quickly.”
Over the past decade, as video games have become more vivid and complex, developers have used the medium to spin rich, character-based stories that rival film and TV in quality. “The Last of Us,” for instance, is less about the actual outbreak than the father-daughter relationship between a smuggler named Joel (played by Pedro Pascal in the series) and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Their journey across the United States, past zombies and cannibals, raises questions about the limits of love and the atrocities a parent will commit in the name of protecting a child.
But while a handful of game-to-screen adaptations like the “Tomb Raider,” “Resident Evil” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchises have made enough money to warrant sequels, there is a sense that unlike, say, comic books, the stories in video games have never been properly translated.
“A lot of them have been embarrassing,” said Neil Druckmann, who led the creation of “The Last of Us” and its 2020 sequel, “The Last of Us Part II,” and created the HBO show with Mazin. (Druckmann is also a showrunner.)
For Hollywood that means a gold mine of intellectual property with a built-in audience of gamers has gone mostly unexploited. Given the pedigree of the creators — Mazin created “Chernobyl,” the Emmy-award winning mini-series, while Druckmann and his studio, Naughty Dog, are considered the benchmarks for narrative storytelling in games — fans are hoping “The Last of Us” will be different. Either way, viewers should prepare to see more games onscreen soon: Other popular video game franchises with film and TV adaptations in the works include “Twisted Metal,” “Ghost of Tsushima” and “Assassin’s Creed.”
In a joint video interview late last month, Mazin and Druckmann discussed “The Last of Us,” what they changed from the game and what they didn’t, and why their philosophy for adaptation was to cut away much of the action in order to make the post-apocalyptic world feel more real. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Inside the Dystopian World of The Last of Us
The critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic video game won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
The “Last of Us” games are about a global pandemic in which the cordyceps fungus, a real-life fungus that can take over the bodies and minds of insects, jumps to humans and turns people into zombies. Suddenly that premise feels a lot less fantastical.
CRAIG MAZIN Neil made the smart decision all these years ago to say, you know what, instead of some invented no-name zombie virus, or rage serum, or some supernatural hell-has-fallen-and-the-dead-will-walk-the-earth —
NEIL DRUCKMANN Radiation!
MAZIN Yeah, radiation, which is just an outrage. Instead of all that, why don’t we go find something that’s real? And he did. I mean, that’s what cordyceps does to ants. I love the science of it.
DRUCKMANN Part of the game’s success was that we try to treat it as grounded as possible. And with the show we’re able to take that philosophy even further. So I think why the pandemic [in the games] feels so real, even though it was written before our current pandemic, is we were looking at things like Katrina. Like here’s where government fails, here’s where people can get really selfish, and here’s where we can see these great acts of love.
In the games, the outbreak takes place in 2013, whereas in the show it’s 2003. Given that most of the story takes place 20 years later, after the world falls apart, I’m guessing the idea was to place the show in the present day?
MAZIN I have this thing about watching shows where a graphic comes up and says, “2053: London.” And I’m like, “I don’t know what 2053 is.” The notion that there’s this twist of fate, and 2023, instead of looking like this, it looks like this — there’s an immediacy to that. I probably inflated its importance in my mind, but it helped me.
Gamers are generally of the opinion that game adaptations are pretty horrible. You both seem to agree, and I’m wondering why you think they’ve been such a failure.
MAZIN There’s a lot of cringe out there.
DRUCKMANN Sometimes the source material is just not strong enough for a direct adaptation. So all you’re left with is a name that has some value to it, but really you’re starting from scratch. Other times it’s that the people in charge are not gamers. They don’t understand what made this thing special. They hang on to really superficial things and they think, for example, plenty of players want to see that one gameplay moment or this one gun from the game.
MAZIN Terrific video games are terrific because of their gameplay, but conceptually they may already be copies of something. A copy of “Aliens.” A copy of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You adapt that and you have a copy of a copy and can just feel a lack of freshness to it.
So what did you try to do differently?
DRUCKMANN The most important thing was to keep the soul of it, what it’s about: these relationships. What makes the show are the characters, the philosophical arguments of, “Do the ends justify the means?” And, “How big is your tribe that you’re going to care for?”
The least important part was the gameplay. In the game we have long action sequences to get you into a flow state, which gets you to better connect with the character — you see yourself as that character. But if you just try to throw that on the screen in the passive medium, it’s not going to work. And that’s the thing that people often get wrong. The conversation with Craig and with HBO, the encouragement, which I loved, was, “Don’t focus on the action.”
Given how many failures there have been, at least creatively, why do you think the appetite for game to TV or movie adaptations is suddenly so large?
MAZIN There’s two possible reasons, one good and one not so good. The video game industry has been putting out some remarkable work. It seems natural that once these games achieve this impressive narrative space, you can start to think about porting them over. That’s the good reason.
Here’s the bad reason: Somebody in a room who doesn’t know anything about playing video games looks at a PDF of how many copies are sold, and they go, “Well, let’s just do that. We need the title and the character, and the character should look like the guy in the game, and then, whatever, we’ll hire some people.”
What are some of the differences in how you build a character for an interactive medium versus a passive one?
DRUCKMANN With a game, there are certain constraints. Joel [the game’s main playable character] needs to be capable enough to mirror what you’re doing in the game. So, for example, he’s crouching and he’s killing. If all of a sudden we had a scene where he’s complaining about his knees, then there’s this disconnect. The Joel in the show, because you don’t have to support him crouch-walking or having to fight all these people, there was this idea of, “What if we explore his age and how broken down he is over the years?” Physically, he becomes a different person that’s more realistic than what we could have done in the game.
MAZIN There are parts of games that, because of their design, have to violate reality. In “The Last of Us” — or really any game where you’re playing somebody that has guns, and you’re fighting against other people that have guns — you’re going to get shot. And then you’re going to heal yourself with a bandage, some pills, power-ups, whatever. So exploring the fragility of the body is part of how we honor this different medium. A single gunshot, if it’s not fatal, can permanently damage you as a human being. There is no bandage for this.
Are you anxious about how fans of the game will react to changes?
MAZIN My job was to be connected with my own fandom and to think about myself as representative of a lot of people, and to ask what would be important to me, what would hurt if it weren’t in the show. I believe that most fans are going to react positively to it, because we made it with love. But if people don’t, I get that too. It’s part of being deeply connected to something.
DRUCKMANN My fear, and this just gets into a general conversation around fandom, is that our cast or anybody from our crew will get attacked or insulted as we make certain changes. After “The Last of Us II,” nothing anybody says online can get to me anymore. But I hate when anybody else gets it.
You’re referring to the online harassment, including death threats, surrounding, among other things, the gender and sexuality of certain characters in the “Last of Us” games, which is also explored in the show.
DRUCKMANN I’ve learned to just accept it and not to give it too much weight. I tend to not be driven by fear. If anything, I lean the opposite. When there’s a certain backlash to an idea, I’m like, then it’s an idea worth exploring.
As a fan of the games, I found myself having a kind of reverse uncanny valley type reaction to Ellie in the show, where I was like, “But that’s not Ellie.” It made me realize how deeply I’ve connected to the game version of Ellie, who is voiced by Ashley Johnson but is a digital character. Unlike a live actress, who you realize is a person and might see in other things, you don’t see Ellie anywhere else, so she almost seems to belong to the story.
MAZIN What I said to Bella is, people are going to probably have a reaction to you, not unlike Joel’s reaction, which is: “Who is this? This isn’t my daughter. This isn’t the person I love. The person I love looks like this and acts like this, and you’re not it … but I guess I’m stuck with you for a bit.”
And then: “Well, you’re kind of growing on me … Actually, I think you’re pretty great … You know what? I would kill anyone to protect you.”
That’s kind of how it works with Joel and Ellie, and that’s kind of how I think it’s going to work with the part of the audience that, like you and like me, has such an attachment to the Ellie that Neil and Ashley created in the game. That’s what Bella does magically. Bella does not beg for your approval — I’m talking about her Ellie — she just is that character and you, like Joel, are falling in love with her.
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