Dec 12

The Faithful Last of Us on the Road

An adaptation of a work is often judged for its perceived “faithfulness” to its source material. In 2009, John Hillcoat released what many critics termed a “faithful” adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road. But what do we mean when we say a movie is “faithful” to the original? Does that mean it follows the exact plot? Or does it mean it stays thematically true to the vaguely-defined “spirit” of the original? In the case of Hillcoat’s adaptation, the term was used more in reference to his striking lack of divergence from McCarthy’s original structure. Despite remaining faithful in terms of basic elements, other critics have noted that the film, while not incompetent, fails to meet the levels of power in McCarthy’s novel.  This is largely due to the fact that “McCarthy possesses stylistic tools as a writer for which Hillcoat possesses no counterparts (Pizzino 15).

I believe that too much focus has been placed not simply on “faithfulness” to source material, but on a misconstrued idealizing of source material in general. I argue that despite not crafted specifically as an adaptation, Naughty Dog’s 2011 post-apocalyptic video game The Last of Us is able to synthesize McCarthy’s characters and many of his original themes in a similar, yet-distinct tale that uses the creative tools of its medium to dynamically further those themes more “faithfully” than the novel’s direct film counterpart and, in some respects, more faithfully than the original novel itself. Thus I assert that as an evaluative term, “faithfulness” is an oft-misconstrued notion for constructing the most effective, poignant method of telling a particular story.

Thomas Leicht writes: “Of all the ways to classify adaptations, surely the decision to classify them as more or less faithful to their putative sources…is one of the most fruitless” (2). Despite this, he also notes that it is still important to attempt to understand the term as it is used in describing the nature of adaptation, as the term pervades almost all discussions. An article by Jerry C. Respeto on Japanese play translations offers a unique viewpoint on the nature of “faithfulness” as it is considered in that realm: “A faithful translation implies a direct translation of one language into another while adaptation involves research on the equivalence of two cultures” (2). If we look at this from the viewpoint of multimedia adaptations, it’s interesting to note that “faithfulness” is only used as a description for translated plays, not adaptations. Thus faithfulness in this sense is the extent to which a work resembles the original whereas “adaptation tries to find the equivalence of ideas and commonality of cultures between two different peoples” (3).

From the viewpoint of multimedia adaptations, this equivalence of ideas and cultures between two peoples represents the struggle of retaining meaning in adapting across mediums. Book to film, film to video game, play to film; these are the two people and their medium-specific properties are their cultures and ideas. This nicely breaks down the confusion with the word “faithfulness,” where there is constant imbalance in exactly what is being measured. This is largely due to the fact that the “letter and the spirit of a work…both constitute an ensemble of facts, of expressions and meanings the interdependence of which is constantly manifest” (Mitry 4). The lack of clarity surrounding the term is largely due to this very point that a work’s basic elements and its vague “spirit” are intertwined and can’t be broken down by focusing on one or the other. This determination is crucial for further discussing the “faithfulness” qualities of The Road’s adaptations.

John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of the novel, while certainly not creatively devoid, does little to establish itself as a unique, standalone work. Again, while not a failed film in full, it is a fair example of an adaptation that works more to replicate its source material than to distinguish itself; more of a “translation” as opposed to an adaptation. It succeeds to some extent for what it has to work with, but considering the entirely un-film-like structure of McCarthy’s novel, it’s rather curious that Hillcoat didn’t do more to rework the film’s structure. Mitry laments the imitation tendency in book to film adaptations. She writes “It is not a matter of imitating the novel, but of perceiving, in cinema’s own way, a certain temporal density, a duration which establishes, opens up, and defines through its multiple perspectives the psychological authenticity of the characters it implicates” (9). Key here is here is the line “in cinema’s own way.” Hillcoat’s film-specific techniques are subtle and do little to either play off of McCarthy’s original structure or uniquely advance a theme. This causes it to occasionally feel like a replication of McCarthy’s work, a “translation,” as opposed to an adaptation.

Despite the fact that Hillcoat’s film remained faithful to McCarthy’s work at face value, it was unable to capture much of the “spirit” of his prose.  Much of the power of McCarthy’s sparse, bare prose is an entirely lost in transition. While this is understandably a particularly difficult element to in any way replicate, Christopher Pizzino notes that Hillcoat’s particularly fast-paced editing style not only pushes away from the original novel, but also thematically hinders the relationship between the man and the boy. He writes that “the seamlessness of McCarthy’s prose, its power to strike and sustain particular narrative notes, contrasts sharply with the jump-cuts in Hillcoat’s rendering” (15). He further critiques the editing style in general, claiming that it “reduces the film’s capacity to connect changes in the father-son relationship to identifiable causes and effects” (15). So even though Hillcoat was structurally faithful to McCarthy’s novel, the “spirit” of the source material didn’t entirely survive the transition from book to film. This is due to the fact that Hillcoat’s preoccupation and over-reliance on the source material caused the film’s quality to be perceived as only a visual retelling.

This general over-focusing on the platonic ideal of source material plagues much of adaptation theory. Mireia Aragay laments the belief that “there is such thing as the ‘original novel’ in the adaptation process, which implies, along the lines of New Criticism, that the original has an autonomous existence of its own, in the sense that it manages to contain among other things a certain number of plots and character elements whose transference in the adaptation process can be traced” (70). This viewpoint, she claims disregards the obvious notion that even the original is based on something, or perhaps many things. Aragay further notes that “We may find that the adaptation finds ways of expressing them in (visual) ways that are paradoxically more faithful to the original novel than the original novel itself” (71). I’m contending that The Last of Us, while not a direct adaptation of McCarthy’s novel, is able to use its combination of vivid, human characters which are unsurpassed in the medium with its ability to give the “reader” control of these characters to make the brutal reality of its post-apocalyptic world more visceral and immediate.

For much of the first half of the game, The Last of Us’ Ellie (the boy’s counterpart) is entirely defenseless, leaving Joel (the man) to defend her. Up until a certain point, players are exclusively in control of the highly-capable, world-weary Joel. That is, until Joel is injured and the game unexpectedly drops the player in a hostile environment as the seemingly defenseless, fourteen year old Ellie. Though she has a small pocketknife, as players, we feel completely vulnerable and helpless in this situation. Ellie has to try and escape from a mall that is swarming with violent drifters. The game initially guides the player through a hallway where Ellie creeps up behind an armed enemy. There are no expectations here for players. Can she kill him? Will he kill her? Can she sneak past him? The choice is up to the player, though the most effective option is indeed to stealthily take the man out. As Joel, players are familiar with a simple button combination that stealth-kills enemies from behind, but there is no guidance or guarantee as Ellie. Will it work, or will she die? Choosing to kill the man has Ellie jumping on the man’s back and struggling with him before repeatedly stabbing him in the chest and falling to the ground covered in blood and tears. The controller vibrates in a heart-thumping rage as the man gurgles at the mouth, blood running down his chest, Ellie’s clothes stained and dripping red. Then the man stops quivering, the thumping heart in the player’s hands peters out, and Ellie is left crying for a decision the player made. I believe that this sort of medium-specific moment where the player acts out harrowing actions is more effective at detailing “the boy’s” awareness of the sadistic world around him, moments where the game is truer to the source than the source material itself.

And this is the goal of my intention with this paper: to confirm the notion hypothesized by Aragay that “faithfulness,” while a faulty measurement, should be applied as much to the source material as it should be for its adaptations. For just as “there is no such thing as a single source for any adaptation,” there is no single source for the original work (Leicht 2). It is, in some sense, attempting to be “faithful,” or perhaps “truthful” to the root of whatever idea it is attempting to express. Aragay suggests that the term “original” should be “expanded to include not just the material elements of the story…but also the constellation of ideas from which they are generated” (70). McCarthy’s attempt to show a child witnessing and experiencing the depraved violence of a post-apocalyptic world is powerful and harrowing, but only made more so through The Last of Us’ ability to use the interactivity of its medium to best tell the story. This, I believe, is as close as can be had to a measure of the ever-thorny “faithful” adaptation.


Works Cited

Aragay, Mireia. Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship. New York: Rodopi,       2006. Web.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads.” Adaptation 1.1 (2008): 63-77. Web.

Mitry, Jean. “Remarks on the Problem of Cinematic Adaptation.” The Bulletin of the Midwest       Modern Language Association 4.1 (1971): 1-9. Web.

Pizzino, Christopher. “Utopia At Last: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Science Fiction.”             Extrapolation 51.3 (2010). Web.

Respoto, Jerry C. “A Faithful Translation for Kabuki Replication.” International Workshop New   Perspectives on Asian Epistemologies. (2003). Web.

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