Thursday, 12 December 2013

Why A Movie Version Of The Last Of Us Won't Work | Feature


Fan made movie poster by zvunche


So it turns out the registration of www.TheLastOfUs-Movie.com and www.TheLastOfUsMovie.net by Sony was indeed indicative of a live-action version of the game. Deadline announced yesterday that The Last of Us: The Movie is happening via Screen Gems and Sam Raimi. Admirers of the game are predictably and justifiably offering their thoughts on casting, narrative and tonal aesthetic, even suggesting who might be a suitable director for the – as it stands – relatively esoteric project. I loved the game. As a writer and someone who watches a hell of a lot of films and plays only a couple of games a year, my reaction to Ellie and Joel’s final moments was profound. Their journey though the US, fighting off the Infected, making and losing friends and companions along the way, and the immutable bond between them will stay with me for a long, long time. I certainly didn’t expect to feel the way I felt from playing a video game. Games like Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain had piqued my curiosity but I never bought the whole ‘immersive Cinematic experience’ thing. But after playing The Last Of Us, I take it all back. I conclusively believe The Last Of Us in movie form would wreck the delicate and extensive ecosystem the game went to such great lengths to cultivate.

There is, I believe, no point in covering a song unless you’re going to bring something new to the table. Like the late Bill Hicks once postulated about struggling actors appearing in adverts, if you’re just starting out, fine I’ll look the other way. But established artists simply cloning their inspirations has always felt, well, uninspired. I feel much the same about productions hewn from the great wealth of non-cinematic source material out there. There are, of course, great exceptions to the rule. Off the top of my head, and since it’s topical, Oliver Stone took Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs’ books On The Trail Of The Assassins, and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy respectively, and turned a confusion of ideas, suggestions and theories into an equally tangled but compelling movie, giving clarity to the knotty hypotheses via light and sound. Closer to home, The National Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company not only turned Michael Morpurgo’s moving, yet emotionally linear children’s book War Horse into a triumphant celebration of theatrical craft and ingenuity, but more importantly, deliberately sidestepped the very kind of sentimental shortcutting and signposting Steven Spielberg was to reach for in his 2011 film adaptation. This is my big fear for The Last Of Us The Movie. That Joel and Ellie’s relationship will be reduced to movie auditorium clichĂ© and easily classifiable and recognizable lead-character blockbuster rapport, when the original affinity between the two was a thousand times more affecting.

This is, in part, largely due to the nature that one observed The Last Of Us’ unfolding narrative. Movies take place over a 120-minute running time. PS3 games (especially if you’re a soft-core n00b gamer like me) take many weeks to complete. During that time, you find yourself going to bed contemplating your last 3-hour session, musing on the ethical choices you made your characters (or they made you) take. When you’re not playing The Last Of Us, you’re at work, interacting with colleagues, reading the news, watching The Walking Dead, hanging out with your friends. All these things affect us, the way that we look at the world, and they affect how we played the game. And playing the game wasn’t a passive experience. We didn’t just watch Joel and Ellie on our screens. We took part in their lives. It wasn’t a movie where the grizzled hero enthusiastically spikes, stabs and blasts his way through the monstrosities that stood in his way. It was an interaction in which my Joel stealthily shivved, hid, or sometimes plain ran away. That’s what the game’s creators allowed for. And I did so because I wasn’t a square-jawed adventurer who laughed in the face of danger. I was me, and I was shit-scared. All the more powerful then, when cut-scenes revealed what Joel was thinking, or when new chapters began in certain locations, it wasn’t exactly what I expected Joel to think or do. It made me question ownership of the character. Of course, I had the controller in my hand, but often the narrative beats had nothing to do with whether or not I pressed Square or Circle. And with every brutal or heartbreaking shift, it’s as if Ellie or Joel could, at any minute, turn and look at me through the screen. “Just remember I am my own person”, they might have said.

I also believe that The Last Of Us took a huge risk with its ending. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here, but it’s an important part of the game’s heavyweight payoff. It’s not simply a case of whether the story was left unresolved or not – in many ways, pragmatically, it was – but what hit us the hardest was where Joel and Ellie went from there. Sure, theirs follows a fairly linear relationship arc through wary trust, unsure alliance, tested loyalty, gritted patience, involuntary commitment, and by the end, something of the deeper resonance you might have hoped for. But The Last Of Us’ final cut-scene proved a difficult, almost troubling watch. It forced you to question motivation, desire, even the unconscious desire to pursue one’s own needs at the expense of those we profess to love. And it was a radical, courageous and brilliant move on behalf of Naughty Dog. It’s just that it’s not very audience friendly. The Last Of Us The Movie won’t be made for Picturehouses. Sony won’t give it to Jeff Nichols or John Hillcoat. They won’t cast unknowns and make it on a lo-fi indie budget. It’ll be made for Multiplex auditoriums, and audiences who take their protagonists with the boldest of character brushstroke architecture. They’ll fuck it up in pursuit of broader gratification. They’ll soft-peddle the hurt. And The Last Of Us experience should leave you hurting.

Of course, I’ll go and see it should it eventually be made. But it’s like Harrison Ford said, sometimes you’ve got to kill of Han Solo as a trade off for a little weight. Drama is conflict, there’s no way around it. Only, cinema these days is intent on packaging conflict in as an accessible way as possible. Life can be wonderful and utterly, inexplicably amazing, but it can also be fucking awful, and The Last Of Us gave us at least the opportunity to experience this in the privacy of our own homes. How we individually felt, as Gustav Santaolalla’s magnificent score strummed and finger-plucked around us as the credits rolled, was a moment for us and us alone. Recreating that moment for a group audience, while they munch on their caramelised kernals and slurp their carbonated sugar-water, will fundamentally alter its power. Hollywood needs to stop with the incessant repackaging. It needs to come up with new, original ideas rather, than assuming every successful piece of art from videogames to novels to award-winning Danish toys is fair game for moviefying. Some things really, really are better left alone. Seriously, just play it and tell me I’m wrong.


This article was amended on 6 March 2014 to include the official announcement from Deadline Hollywood. 

An edited version of this piece originally appeared in FilmJuice.