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The mutated adaptation of HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’

When HBO announced that they were adapting my favorite game, “The Last of Us,” as a nine-episode TV show, I was terrified. After just two episodes, I now realize something truly special is unfolding. My goal for this article, though, is not to review the show, or to even praise the accuracy of its adaptation.

I want to talk about what adapting a video game actually entails.

It is almost impossible to convince a fan to watch a story they previously had control over. Watching video games is boring. A night of watching my friend playing “God of War” after I had beat the game was proof enough. Kratos’ ax swings didn’t hit, the enemies weren’t scary and Atreus wasn’t my endearing companion — because he was too busy obeying my friend’s button mashing instead. Book adaptations are one thing, but translating a playable experience to screen is a different beast entirely. One with a health bar no film studio can truly conquer.

Fortunately, you are never in control in “The Last of Us.” Every encounter acts as a pitstop on a rigid, linear path. The gamer has no wiggle room to experiment. It’s a movie that they play. Some may call that a shortcoming, but it gives the perfect blueprint for television.

That’s right. Television. This project is not a shortened, feature-length rendition of the video game’s best moments. It’s a miniseries with a 90-minute premiere. A commitment of this scale has to stretch beyond the game’s original script. New scenes buttress the theme and tone, while familiar scenes intercut between new and old dialogue for deeper character interactions. Television structures mean disconnected cold opens, freer camera perspectives and more characters in tighter, condensed set pieces. A television show needs a television cast, meaning the camera doesn’t follow Joel (Pedro Pascal) exclusively. Characters get original, independent scenes outside of his world, clueing us into a bigger conflict that he cannot control. It’s a bigger experience that doubles down on the character’s vulnerability.

Prestige television doesn’t run the same rhythm as a gun-toting horror game. Tutorial controls and chase sequences are cut out completely, freeing up runtime for longer character interactions. Tess (Anna Torv) and Joel’s relationship is far more important than the smuggling tunnels in Boston, so one is dropped while the other is doubled. These shifting interests pale in comparison to producer Craig Mazin’s alterations to the story world. The fungus spreads through the ground, not spores, and its legions of infected are far more terrifying. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is a younger, more naive interpretation, foreshadowing a darker angle for future events. The biggest change, though, is Joel. He is no longer the one-man-army you command. He is a frustrated old man teetering on the edge of a bottomless pit of rage. He is just as fragile as he is dangerous — a bomb I cannot wait to see explode. For an adaptation of this scale and passion, change is good. It keeps me excited for next week’s episode rather than dreading a rerun of a story I’ve already seen.

HBO is the perfect ecosystem for high-profile adaptations. Not only is their brand founded on massive productions and top actors, but its platform vocalizes the intentions of every show’s creators. I don’t have to worry about why game elements are left out when Neil Druckman, the writer for both the game and show, tells me why in the after credits interviews. The communication is clear. He understands exactly what challenge he faces because he created the audience. These beloved characters are in good hands, and I, a fan and critic, cannot wait to see what happens next.

Contact J.P. at jspoonmo@nd.edu