The process of adapting video games to the screen is challenging, especially for a highly-acclaimed game like The Last of Us. The game has a loyal fanbase due to its immersive storytelling, character development, and world-building. And helping with the emotional connection is Gustavo Santaolalla’s original score, which played a vital role in the game’s success.
For the HBO adaptation, showrunner Craig Mazin and game-writer Neil Druckmann understood the importance of bringing back Santaolalla and his music to score the show in order to preserve the essence of the story.
As Santaolalla describes it, the show’s music is “an expansion of what we have developed and recorded for the first instalment of the game.” To understand the subtleties of these changes for its adaptation, let’s compare the scores from both the game and the TV show.
The Last of Us Theme
In the game, the main theme is accompanied by snippets of news reports providing story exposition and world-building. While it sets the mood, it also blends into the background. In the original theme, Musiio’s tagging AI recognises moods as Mysterious, Soothing, Melancholy and Calm.
By contrast, the main title theme for TV is centre stage. It is recognisably the same theme with a very similar arrangement, so we wouldn’t expect to see much difference in the mood tags. Sure enough, the AI detects Mysterious, Sad, Neutral and Soothing moods.
Upon closer inspection, structural differences can be heard between the two versions. For example, the TV adaptation omits the introductory arpeggio, adds more reverb, and slightly alters the mix to emphasise the violin. The original’s electronic beats are replaced with timpani-like percussion, making the theme more palatable for 2023 TV audiences.
For genres, the tagging AI recognises both main themes as comprising Folk and Indie Rock elements. Unexpectedly, the TV version also receives an Easy Listening genre tag (albeit with low confidence). This could be on account of the slightly sweeter mix and higher presence of strings, but it also reflects the show’s less violent tone compared to the game; there’s much less on-screen bloodshed.
The Giraffe Scene
A memorable moment in The Last of Us, involves Joel losing sight of Ellie in an abandoned building. Instead of a jump scare, the audience is presented with a heartwarming scene of a herd of giraffes wandering through the city. This tender moment helps us understand the world that the characters inhabit and is an important bonding moment between the story’s main characters.
The musical theme for this scene is called ‘Vanishing Grace’ and features melodic cello and mellow tremolo-laden guitar-like tones.
The game cue’s moods are Sentimental, Mysterious and Soothing, while genre tags are Ambient, Electronic and Classical.
In the show, genre tags are the same (Classical, Ambient, Electronic), with greater confidence of Classical over Ambient. Moods are Sentimental, Soothing, Calm and Mysterious. So far, so similar. But one interesting factor is how much rubato (disregard for strict tempo) the version for TV has. We can see this with our BPM Variance classifier, tagging it as Medium, while the original (like most tracks) is Small. This is a good indicator of an emotive cue or a piece of music that has been made to fit a specific scene.
Tonal Changes and the HBO Sheen
When comparing the entire original soundtracks for both the game and the TV show, similarities are apparent. However, the differences in the adaptation reveal a shift in focus from violence and suspense to human relationships; the show’s soundtrack features fewer Scary mood tags and more Sad moods.
The recording quality classifier also highlights the HBO polish on the show’s soundtrack. Approximately 33% of the tracks in the TV adaptation received a “Very High” recording quality tag, while only 7% of the game’s tracks achieved the highest quality rating.
In conclusion, The Last of Us Soundtrack’s transition from game to TV show is a rare adaptation success. By keeping the original composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, the series manages to maintain the game’s musical essence while adapting it for a new medium. The result is a harmonious blend of the familiar and the fresh, appealing to both devoted fans and newcomers alike.
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