Sam Raimi, director of the Spider-Man trilogy and Drag Me to Hell, has recently unveiled plans to create a movie based on the PlayStation 3 exclusive, The Last of Us. The film will be distributed by Screen Gems, with a script written by Naughty Dog’s creative director Neil Druckmann.
For those who haven’t played it, The Last of Us follows grizzled smuggler Joel and his 14-year-old companion, Ellie, through a world long since ravaged by a fungal apocalypse. It was widely praised, not just for its gameplay, but for its story and the relationship between the two leads.
You can see, then, why they chose it for a film. The game’s main enemies are the Infected: shambling, once-human monsters with a contagious bite. They’re effectively zombies, and zombies are a trend both the film and game industry have been trying to ride to death (ironically). The Last of Us also possesses a solid story, unlike many games with adaptations out already (Mario, Pac-Man, the upcoming Angry Birds). Lastly, as a popular benchmark title for the PS3, the game has a loyal fanbase who should provide a guaranteed, paying audience. That is, if the film is done “right”.
And that’s the part that eluded countless video game adaptations thus far. Take the most successful Screen Gems franchise: the Resident Evil films. The first of those films has a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which describes it as “loud, violent, formulaic and cheesy”. That was released in 2002, and it hasn’t improved 10 years on. The 2012 entry, Resident Evil: Retribution, obtained a 31% rating and the dubious appraisal of “predictable…cynical and lazy”. The films also take significant liberties with their source material, to the point out that their main protagonist (whose exploits the films revolve around) appears in none of the games.
Not that anyone else has done much better. The most successful video game movies on the site are Wreck-It Ralph (which doesn’t really count, as the actual video game characters only show up in cameos) and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The latter managed to rise to the dizzying heights of “nearly acceptable”, with a 44% review score. And on the other end of the scale, there’s director Uwe Boll.
All of this provides immediate problems for The Last of Us. What budget will the film get given the stigma surrounding video game adaptations? Similarly, what standard of actor? Some adaptations have acquired them regardless: 2008’s Prince of Persia got a massive budget, with actors such as Ben Kingsley and Jake Gyllenhaal staring in the feature. But then again, that had Disney to back it up. The Last of Us has Screen Gems.
How much mass-market appeal will The Last of Us be expected to have? Resident Evil was a mindless action movie divorced from its source material, but it doubled its budget. Why not just make another one of those with The Last of Us’ names stuck on it, World War Z-style? In the game, Joel isn’t a hero. Up to the ending (especially the ending) he makes morally ambiguous choices for selfish reasons. Will all that make it past the focus groups?
Beyond those fundamental issues, there’s a different set of issues. Even if the story of The Last of Us is translated to film unscathed, it will still be without the mechanics the game used to tell its story so organically. A small example: in The Last of Us, ammunition and supplies are scarce. By giving control of when to use them to the player, and having them suffer when the first-aid runs out or the ammo-clip runs empty, the story element is told seamlessly through gameplay. A separate problem is length; a fifteen hour movie would be unthinkable, but that’s the average playthrough of The Last of Us. Cutscenes take up ninety minutes alone, the length of some films.
And finally there’s the biggest problem: control. While The Last of Us is a linear game, you are still allowed moments of choice. You can enrich the story by collecting notes and letters. Some of the characters who write them never appear in the game, or directly interact with Joel and Ellie’s story, but they enrich the experience as a whole. You could kill the bandits and militias roaming the wastes, or spare them. You learned your own special tricks to kill Infected. The digressions that come standard in a video game can never truly be transported to a movie. That’s the biggest obstacle for adaptations as a whole.
If The Last of Us overcomes all this, a great movie could still come of it. It has a strong story, well-written characters and moments of cinematic presentation. All that means it has a greater chance than most games of producing a good one. But there are fundamental issues it needs to overcome, and even then, it stands little chance of overtaking its predecessor.