Much like the characters in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us, video game-based films just have never been able to catch a break from horror and bad circumstances. Surprisingly, even though the comparison may be a stretch, history has proven this to be true: from the laughingly-bad movie adaptations of game franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, to halfway-decent-but-still-not-particularly-good series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, video game movies occupy their own sort of special apocalyptic wasteland, not unlike the cordyceps-ravaged world of The Last of Us.
Given the horrific track record for movies based on games, Sony made a big splash recently with the announcement that Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us would be adapted into a feature film of its own: cue the groans, grunts, laughs, applause, or any other reactions of choice.
Despite the initial reactions, the news of the feature film came surprisingly to be sure, but with the film’s reveal also came the announcement of its creative talent, with the film set to be distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment, and produced by Ghost House Pictures, the studio owned by Evil Dead and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi. Following behind Sony and Ghost House would be much of the original talent from the game itself: Sony announced that the film will be written exclusively by Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, along with co-creative director Bruce Straley having involvement in the film.
While no other details were announced regarding the director, cast, or expected time of release, the questions around the film adaptation of The Last of Us still stood prominently: how could Sony expect to faithfully reproduce an already pretty cinematic game? How could Druckmann and the film’s producers potentially offer up something profound and notable, both for video games and movies? How could a film adaptation live up to the (almost) unanimous Game of the Year for 2013?
Most importantly: how can The Last of Us (potentially) fix video game film adaptations?
It’s not blunt to say it: video game adaptations (for the most part) have had far more failures than successes. Dating back to the first few film adaptations of video games like Super Mario Bros. (1993) and Mortal Kombat (1995) to more recent attempts like this week’s release of Need for Speed (2014), video game-based movies have had a notable struggle to gain traction when it comes not only to critical and commercial success, but also just in terms of narrative and artistic accomplishments.
While some films in the past have at least earned some middling success, like Silent Hill (2006) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), for being relatively decent by video game-movie standards, for the large part game movies have struggled due to their overreliance on trying to recreate their game counterparts to a “T” on the big screen. More often than not, this has resulted in many video game-based movies trying to recreate the feeling and action of their original source material, but coming across one of the biggest challenges of adapting video games into film in the first place instead. In particular, Doom (2005) tried this (pretty literally) with a “first-person shooter” sequence near the film’s end, resulting in a scene that visually was fun and engaging, but came off as a recreation trying too hard to be like the game: why watch this okay adaptation of a sequence I could have infinitely more fun playing myself in the game?
It’s the unfortunate problem like this that faces the majority of video game-based movies: the interactivity and immersion of games is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recreate (properly) within a movie. It’s the intangible effect that speaks to the larger part of why the translation between games to movies has proven so difficult: why video games can feel “cinematic” and often feel better for it, while movies that feel “video game-y” are more often criticized than complimented.
Where Doom and other game movies were lashed at for their need to be just like their game counterparts, others like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) were critical darlings for successfully recreating the energy and fun of video games, while not even being based on any particular franchise or series.
So, where does that leave the upcoming film adaptation of The Last of Us?
Right now, it’s hard to say, and possibly a little premature to try and imagine so far out from now how exactly The Last of Us will play out as a feature film. Having just been announced recently, details other than knowing that Druckmann and Straley are involved leave lots to the imagination at this point, without even knowing when exactly the film is expecting to hit. Through a recent interview with Druckmann though, we do at least know that the film adaptation is going to stick very close to the original game, as Druckmann mentions:
“It’s an adaptation of the story of The Last of Us. As far as where we go and how we make it fit into a film, how it takes into account the unique properties of film… We’re not sure yet. We’re only just scratching the surface.”
The Last of Us was already renowned for its cinematic qualities and taking inspiration from a wide range of acclaimed films, with titles like No Country for Old Men, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and Children of Men bringing large influences on the game. With its cutscenes calling to mind the precision and artistry as any well-honed and tightly-edited feature film, and its performances from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson nearly being Oscar-worthy, The Last of Us already has the foundations for a feature film with its strong narrative accomplishments.
However, could the film improve on some of the (relatively few) shortcomings of the game? While The Last of Us was well regarded for its story and emotional involvement, a quality that will easily translate to film under the right direction and writing, the film may have the chance to refine some of the game’s repetitive combat, one of the few issues that some found with the title. In the place of combat setpieces that some felt acted as “filler” between its strong narrative sequences, the film could provide action sequences that serve the story, rather than just being action for the sake of action.
With titles like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed similarly on track to receive feature film adaptations in the coming years, while others like BioShock have lamented in development hell for even longer, The Last of Us’s announcement as a feature film adaptation gives plenty of reason to groan. As history has shown, video game-to-movie adaptations have been far from successful, and only leaves us to question whether adapting such a hugely successful title like The Last of Us will bring failure or not: will this end up like the countless game movie failures like so many times before?
Right now, it’s unclear: but, with the backing of Druckmann, Straley, and Sony behind a full-fledged feature-film recreation of the game, we could equally as likely see the first true high-quality video game movie to come our way. Whether it’s just the first to come or the last of a quality game movie adaptation though, remains to be seen.