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‘The Last of Us’ — a new test for video game adaptations

However thrilling they are to play, video games rarely translate well to the big or small screen — indeed, the crossover genre is littered with flops. 

But the dystopian, zombie-filled HBO series “The Last of Us,” premiering in the United States on Sunday and the following day elsewhere, could be about to break the curse.

The series has already won a slew of positive reviews, with a score of 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and is on track to be the streaming world’s first success of 2023, 10 years after the “The Last of Us” game first debuted on PlayStation. 

Game creator Neil Druckmann, along with “Chernobyl” screenwriter Craig Mazin,  helped develop the narrative for television.

The story remains faithful to the original Naughty Dog title, following the unlikely duo of demoralized smuggler Joel and spirited teenager Ellie, whom he must protect as the planet’s potential last hope against a fast-moving zombie fungus. 

The nine-episode season — in which Joel is played by “Narcos” and “Mandalorian” star Pedro Pascal and “Game of Thrones” actress Bella Ramsey portrays Ellie — is set in a post-apocalyptic America ruled by a military dictatorship.

The stakes of the series’ success are high for HBO Max, which just raised its US subscription fee from $14.99 to $15.99 for an ad-free monthly package.

HBO “clearly remains the gold standard for original series, but its parent company (Warner Bros. Discovery) is at a crossroads in terms of how much it’s willing to spend on projects,” said John Cassillo, an analyst with TVREV.

– Rare success –

Adaptations of blockbuster video games tend not to do well when they are turned into movies or television series.

On a list drawn up by Box Office Mojo, only five films in this genre have surpassed $400 million in earnings. The top one, “Warcraft” (2016) — which took in $439 million worldwide — doesn’t figure in the top 250 on the overall box office list.

Other rare successes include “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001) starring Angelina Jolie, and more recently Netflix’s Emmy-winning animated series “Arcane,” set in the “League of Legends” universe.

“What makes video games entertaining doesn’t always make movies/shows entertaining, and vice versa,” said Cassillo.

In the case of “The Last of Us,” he explained, “the post-apocalyptic story taps into a popular genre even outside of gaming, and HBO has a long-standing track record succeeding with dramatic series.” 

Cassillo predicted that if the series “uses the backdrop of the game’s plot to tell a compelling character story (that could exist even apart from the game), it’ll stand a great chance to succeed where other video game adaptations have failed.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Druckmann said the most important thing in adapting the game was “to keep the soul of it,” not necessarily every scene.

“What makes the show are the characters, the philosophical arguments of, ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ And,…

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