DUBAI: In video-game terms, 2013’s “The Last of Us” was pretty much perfect. Set 20 years after a pandemic caused by a mutant fungus has turned most of humanity into aggressive cannibalistic hosts known as the Infected, it follows world-weary smuggler Joel escorting Ellie, a teenage girl immune to infection (and thus viewed as the best hope for developing a vaccine by the Fireflies — a rebel group resisting FEDRA, which exerts totalitarian rule over the quarantine zones where the vast majority of the survivors live), across America.
Joel initially views Ellie purely as cargo, but his paternal instincts (buried since the death of his daughter on the first night of the pandemic) eventually kick in. Ellie, meanwhile, whose bravery and surface-level maturity mostly succeed in masking her fragility, allows herself to trust Joel — despite knowing the risks of trusting anyone. The game was a masterpiece — scary, emotionally engaging, superbly written and beautifully paced.
HBO’s long-awaited adaptation, which launches Jan. 15 on OSN+, has a lot to live up to, then. And the games myriad fans are, generally, an unforgiving bunch.
Judging by the first six of the show’s nine episodes, those fans can rest easy. It helps that co-runner Neil Druckmann also co-directed the game for Naughty Dog. Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie capture the chemistry that is the key to “The Last of Us” — Pascal portraying the vulnerability below Joel’s gruff, no-nonsense exterior with great skill, and Ramsey blending Ellie’s light-hearted teenage silliness with the knowing cynicism and hard shell necessary for her survival.
Much of the game’s storyline is replicated, as are the stunning scenery and monsters created by Naughty Dog. However, the show also shifts the plot significantly at times — usually for the better (in terms of a TV show).
Like the game, the show shifts dynamics well — at times Joel and Ellie’s journey is uneventful enough to lull them (and you) into a false sense of security. Then it goes all high-octane again. It seems Druckmann and co-creator Craig Mazin have managed the almost-impossible; creating a show that will satisfy (most of) the game’s fans, but enthralling enough to pull you in even if you know nothing of the source material.