Joel Is Already A More Sympathetic Character In The Last Of Us On HBO
After "Long Long Time" aired on Sunday night, I've seen some viewers question if Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin's handling of Bill and Frank's storyline suggests that the HBO’s The Last Of Us will be more likely to present Joel's climactic choice as sympathetic.
It's an understandable question, given that Bill and Frank's hour-long love story sanded off the cynical edge that defined their relationship in the game. In the series, Bill grows and changes. In the game, he's so stuck-in-his-ways that he drives Frank away. The move toward optimism seems to show a sentimental streak.
But, even before "Long Long Time," the series had already been positioning Joel as a more sympathetic character than he was in the game. Uniquely for an adaptation of a video game, the TV series is less subtle in its characterization than the game on which it's based.
For example, when, at the end of the premiere, a FEDRA agent pulls a gun on Ellie, Joel attacks the man and we see, via a seconds-long flashback, that his sudden violence is motivated by the memory of Sarah's death. The game builds up to this link between the two girls more slowly, leaving the connection implicit until late in the game. But the series has shown, early on, the extent to which Ellie will become a stand-in for Sarah and a surrogate daughter to Joel.
The show also mines sympathy by playing down the game's brutality. Early on in the game, Joel and Tess torture Robert, but, in the series, that dynamic is almost reversed. When we first meet Robert and Tess, he has her in an interrogation room. Later, when Joel and Tess find Robert, he's already dead. Video games can make you identify with a character, even when they do brutal things. We are always in control of the player character in games and games so often use violence as that character's primary means of expression, that the medium encourages us to see violence as intrinsically heroic.
Games are, typically, objective-based and enemies are, typically, what stands in the way of us accomplishing those objectives. So, as players, we understand torture in a way we don't as viewers. We need to reach our objective, and this will help us do that. To get us on Joel's side, the series has to tone this down. When we are no longer the one doing the torture, we're much less likely to empathize with it. Games tend to turn us all into pragmatists.
Empathy tends to correspond directly to our understanding of why a character does what they do. The Last of Us series tweaks Joel's motivation to make his actions early on easier to understand and driven by love for family. In the game, Joel and Tess are motivated by the desire to get their cargo back from Robert, and after that goes south, they're willing to work with Marlene to deliver Ellie to make up for the shortfall in their income. In the show, Joel and Tess still agree to work with Marlene for self-interested reasons, but their goal in doing so is to find Tommy. In the series, Tommy doesn't seem to have been gone for very long (or at least, has only recently stopped responding to radio calls), whereas in the game, Tommy and Joel had a falling out years before. By making Joel's goal to find his brother, it gives him a human warmth that Game Joel, early on, is too hardened to feel.
As a result, the show gets viewers on Joel's side in a way the game doesn't. When he refuses to tell Ellie the truth at the end of the game, we may sympathize because we've come to care about her and don't want to see her die, but we can still see the deep selfishness in what he did. The show may have a hard time making Joel seem anything but sympathetic in those final moments, and will likely have a hard time making Ellie's anger feel reasonable. The game's ending requires a careful tonal balancing act and it's an open question whether the series will be able to match it.
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