Video game adaptations do not have a great track record on the big screen, and given how acclaimed The Last of Us has already been for its character-focused narrative, performances and art direction, there are more than a few good reasons for fans to be nervous about the prospect of a movie adaptation.
So even though the film is several years away from completion, producer Sam Raimi and writer Neil Druckmann (who created the game and will pen the screenplay) appeared at Comic-Con last Friday (July 25) for a surprise panel, during which they took questions both from fans and from semi-professional gaming nerd Chris Hardwick.
Naughty Dog, the developer behind The Last of Us, has been given an unusual level of creative control over every aspect of the production – hence now-creative director Druckmann being hired to write the screenplay. Production company Screen Gems has given Druckmann and his team final say on casting and the director (although final cut wasn't mentioned). "We were kind of given the keys to the kingdom," said Druckmann, "and now it's on us for this thing not to suck."
Druckmann wanted to change the ending entirely, and was talked out of it by Raimi. Going into his first meeting with Raimi, "I'd written an outline of what I thought had to be cut, because it's a 15-hour game," he explained, "and some changes were more drastic than others. I started describing a very different ending, and Sam was literally almost pulling his hair out."
After explaining what he felt was missing from the new ending, Raimi persuaded Druckmann to trust in his original idea. "He convinced me to go back to a lot of the original material. The film doesn't need to be different, it just needs to capture the core of what made The Last of Us special."
Maisie Williams is the frontrunner to play 14-year-old survivor Ellie, although nothing has yet been signed. "We almost had her come out for this panel," Raimi revealed, suggesting that this must be pretty close to a done deal.
Some story elements from Left Behind, the Ellie-centric downloadable prequel chapter released earlier this year, may be incorporated into the script.
Asked by a fan whether the Infected – humans mutated into an aggressive new form as the result of a fungal infection – would still be the main enemy in the movie, Druckmann confirmed that they will. But not before pausing to correct her for calling them 'zombies'. "The Infected play a big role in setting up the world, and applying pressure on Joel and Ellie and the surrounding cast so that they have to make really difficult choices."
The film will be even more laser-focused on the central relationship between Ellie and fellow survivor Joel than the game. "Ellie goes on this fantastic journey, and she's a character you fall in love with, and you fall in love with Joel as he's fighting the desire to fall in love again, because he was so wounded 20 years ago – it's just such a great story," Raimi enthused. "It's going to be a great character journey and a great love story."
While Ellie has to be recast – "In an ideal world, Ashley Johnson would be 14, but she's not," Druckmann lamented – it's possible that some of the original actors who provided voices and motion capture for the game could reprise their roles. "The casting process will be about finding the best people, and they may be some of the originals," said Raimi, but the emphasis will be on finding actors who bring their own interpretation rather than attempting a pale imitation of the game performances.
"I think there are ways to get those actors into the film, and I think in some way they have to be a part of it," added Druckmann, hinting that Johnson, Troy Baker and the game's other actors will show up in some form, even if it's not in their original roles.
Some key sequences – including the truck ambush – will be translated wholesale into the film script. "Our approach has been figuring out what material is not at the core of the relationship, what's been put in there more for game play, and what do you need in a great video game versus a great movie?" Druckmann explained.
"We don't just want to write set pieces where you run into Infected and have a shootout, and because you don't always need to be thinking about the next combat encounter, the movie can have a different flow.
"We're always asking, 'How does this moment apply pressure, how does this moment tell us something new about the bond between Joel and Ellie?' That's the test of whether that sequence stays in or gets cut."
Druckmann and Raimi both see this as a potential game-changer for games on the big screen. "There's never been a great video game adaptation for film. There's been some stuff we enjoyed, but what if we could make the first great one?" said Druckmann. "That's what was intriguing to us as developers and gamers. I'm not saying we will, but we're gonna work our asses off to try and make this great."
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