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Cut Scenes – Special Feature: The Last of Us vs… The Last of Us?

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To kick off the return of Josh’s celebrated Cut Scenes column, here’s a special feature: How does The Last of Us (the TV series) really stack up against The Last of Us (the video game)?

The Last of Us has rolled to its exhausted close. In lifting the game, and all its wintry discontents, and pasting it onto the television screen, Home Box Office has a hit. For millions of watchers around the world, the show has, presumably, borne shocks, thawed hearts, and gnawed greedily at nerves right up until the final shot. Speaking of which, Bella Ramsey, who plays Ellie, one of the two central characters, does a great impersonation of the graphics on the PlayStation 3, subtly creasing her features to demonstrate Ellie’s crumbling trust, and saying, “Okay.” Who needs the Cell processor?

However, for people who have played the game, watching the series feels, at times, like going through the motions. It becomes a mental checklist. Oh, there’s the museum. Yep, there goes Tess. Ah, the sewers, eyes peeled for Ish! And here comes the giraffe, cleverly surpassing the graphics of the PlayStation 3 with the underrated tactic of being real. (Apparently, it was everything else in that scene that was patched into place via computer, hence the dreamily smeared look as the creature munched on greenery from Ellie’s hands.) There were diversions, of course. The third episode, “Long, Long Time,” did indeed take a leisurely and longing break from the plot and centred on Bill (Nick Offerman), a survivor who meets a man who fell into a hole, and proceeds to tumble hesitantly into love.

That episode is a bright spot not just because it offers fans of Parks and Recreation a pretty accurate depiction of Ron Swanson in an apocalypse. It also gives us something new. Other additions include Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the leader of a militia in Kansas City; ruthless and riven by grief, she hunts for two brothers, Henry and Sam, with an appetite for revenge. My personal favourite is the set piece in the fifth episode, “Endure and Survive,” in which a flood of zombies bursts from beneath a road and seethes toward the humans, like an army of ants from a disturbed nest. For most of its nine episodes, though, The Last of Us stays true to its source material. Pedro Pascal, in the weary role of Joel, does a fine job – as real and as roughly textured as that giraffe. Plus, special mention must go to the cordyceps, in a thankless supporting role, for reaching new heights of creepiness with its weedy tendrils, waving hello from the yawning mouths of the infected.

And yet, for those of us well versed in the game, something was absent, muted; a faint boredom crept in, like a puff of spores, and for big stretches we were left twiddling our thumbs. There were passages of pure gameplay, so to speak, as when the pair crept through a Boston museum, trying not to disturb the resident Clickers – long-term sufferers of cordyceps, whose heads, having bloomed into a fungal explosion, have the brown and creaky look of tree bark. There were also instances of unadulterated drama, as in the seventh episode, “Left Behind,” a flashback wherein Ellie and her friend Riley break into an abandoned shopping mall, ride a carousel, pose for pictures in a photo booth, and play Mortal Kombat II on an old (though miraculously functional) arcade cabinet.

The entire episode was derived from the expansion chapter of the same name. Only, arriving as part of the main narrative, rather than a post-game extra, it had the distracted air of a detour. You felt like Ellie on that carousel: slipping into reverie, tranquillised by a brief burst of happiness, but going nowhere. It seemed as if the rest of the series was on hold while context-sensitive pathos were being downloaded in. Their quick peace is soon ruptured by a lone ravener, who twitches to life, peels himself from a patch of rotting wall, and goes in search of dinner. In the ensuing fumble, Ellie plunges her knife into his neck, and you feel the mechanical kick of her struggle, as you remember those fraught grapples from the game. In that instant, I was snapped out of the fug and wrenched into the present tense. It was as if someone had slotted a coin into the show and it had come alive; I kept thinking, “Finish Him!“, willing Ellie to triumph despite knowing the outcome.

Before watching The Last of Us, I wondered if the ghost of gameplay would be lingering about – if the action sequences would feel slack or stunted without our input. In the event, what you wind up missing isn’t the crunch of combat but the longueurs in between, the talk that hangs in the air like smoke after the gunfire dies away. The bond between Joel and Ellie, in the game, thickens in those idle pockets of down time, punctuated not only by her reading aloud from a book of bad puns but by steady blocks of quiet. It happens as you heave a ladder in the wrong direction, realise your error, and lug it back the other way, the better to cross a gap. Or as you scrape through gloomy rooms, looking for spare bullets or bottles of pills. All those fuzzy spots of dull life that an editor would slice away in order to smooth our progress from one scene to the next: in other words, the stuff that games are made of, and the stuff that games make fun.

The next episode, “When We Are in Need,” has Ellie in a snow-packed wilderness, scavenging antibiotics for an injured and peaky Joel. The story resolves in flames and blood, with Ellie hacking down a crazed pursuer – not a zombie but a man, the leader of a small flock of stragglers, who keeps them alive with a touch of cannibalism, stewing the dead and palming it off as deer. When Ellie is reunited with Joel at the close, and the two share a loving embrace, you sense the ice between them has broken, rather than melted, and you aren’t quite sure when it happened. The answer for this uneven tread is not for HBO to commission a thirty-hour version of the same tale and buoy it with the reassuring boredom of life, just so that Joel and Ellie can  more gradually meander into each other’s trust. The answer may well be to stray from the template laid forth by the developer, Naughty Dog, and take the story off the leash.

The producers at HBO would be right to point out that The Last of Us was only partially aimed at players; and that, of the millions of people that tuned in over the course of the first season (a second is on the way), many were uninitiated. And so to the surreal discrepancy between what unfolded on my TV and the many rapt responses to it, from normal folks and from critics. What seemed most baffling to me was the latter. How, I wondered, if you subsist on a professional diet of preeminent television, trimmed with a sea of trash and topped up with excursions to the cinema perhaps, then how does The Last of Us leap out as a masterwork?

To my mind, it doesn’t hold a dripping candle to Buffy the Vampire Slayer at its best, or to Mad Men. Maybe that has simply to do with my inability to view the HBO version with an open mind – or, rather, with a mind uncluttered by notions of play. (Of the friends who have shared their equally chilly reception to the show, all, without exception, have played the game.) Who knows? If I had already experienced Quantic Dream’s Mad Men, pouring a PlayStation controller to bolster Don’s big pitch with a glug of booze, maybe the efforts of American Movie Classics would have felt short-served.

Regardless, what HBO has delivered is a robust apocalyptic fable, the best live-action adaptation of a game we have yet had. It’s little wonder the showrunners, Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (the latter of whom directed the game), are keen to point up the rarity of that achievement. Why else would you stash Mortal Kombat II in the midst of the drama, if not to remind people of the Paul W. S. Anderson movie, from 1995 – and thus of how often the process of adaptation results in the filmmaking equivalent of button-mashing? The Last of Us stands as the most fascinating case yet, in the conversion of video games to the passive screen. With certain shots taken verbatim from the game, it can be as faithful as it is only because Naughty Dog sought to mirror the techniques of movies in the first place. 

It is not without irony, then, that what the show lacks isn’t just the thrill of interactivity but the power it has to pull us closer to the characters, or to ground us in a location for lengthy periods of active inaction. “Simple stories, complex characters” was Druckmann’s mantra in making the game; in other words, you take a standard-issue narrative and stew it, among the dead, for many hours, and let the complexity boil over. All the show has, in sticking close to the template of its predecessor, is the plot, a troupe of talented actors, a bulky budget, and a real giraffe. None of which needs a controller, or an unlimited string of hours – just the ability to break out of its enclosure. It has a fixed running time but no time to run.


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