Tim Tan Huynh

Fictional Dystopias and The Last of Us

28 Jul 2020 — Their movie adaptations weren't blockbusters, but these two novels indirectly inspired one of the most popular, if overrated, video games of the past decade. I have read them.

It’s been several weeks since the release of The Last of Us Part II. The praise that its 2013 precursor enjoys has always bothered me because its premise and first act is derivative of Children of Men, and yet this borderline plagiarism is rarely recognized as such. There are differences between the game and the movie, but video games seem to get a pass for freely taking major story ideas from other mediums.

I watched Children of Men (2006) when it came to video and I added it to my collection shortly afterward. The Road (2009), on the other hand, slipped past my radar when it was released a few years later. It hasn’t been part of my cultural memory until realizing that, if message boards and review sites are any indication, more people associate The Last of Us with The Road, probably because their similarities are more obvious.

I’ve seen Children of Men countless times, but I hadn’t seen The Road until a few weeks ago. Before watching the latter, I set the goal of reading the books on which these movies are based. I found both of these dystopian novels to be worth reading, even though my experiences weren’t totally enjoyable.

The Children of Men

PD James’s The Children of Men, published in 1992, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, released in 2006, are surprisingly different in terms of plot. The book is set in 2021 and is more focused on political upheaval. It also has a clear antagonist, unlike the movie. Cuaron, who co-wrote the movie’s script, refused to read the book. Thus, the movie is more like the escort mission that comprises The Last of Us .

The Children of Men is actually boring for first two-thirds or so. Nothing interesting happens until Theo encounters Julian, his former student in one his night classes, and even then it’s a while before he agrees to join her ragtag group of political activists, The Fishes. The pregnancy revelation is made much later in the book, and Julien is the expectant mother, whereas a young woman in Julien’s care is the apparent savior of humanity.

To be fair, the beginning describes the world and the middle sets the stage for the tense climax. Theo’s journal entries establish the mundane futility of daily life and hint the calculated brutality of Xan, the authoritarian leader of the UK who happens to be Theo’s cousin. The tension really starts when Theo, Julien, and the other Fishes set out for the countryside because Julien wants to give birth in seclusion.

Xan is an interesting villain in that he isn’t totally evil. He’s ambitious and autocratic, sure, but he’s not malicious. So, the danger that he and his minions pose to the Theo and The Fishes is surprising when it’s realized, but, in hindsight, that danger is foreshadowed. The conflict in the movie is less personal because, as mentioned, Xan is absent from the movie adaptation.

One noteworthy difference between the book and movie is the nature of the worldwide reproductive problem. In the former, men are determined to be infertile. Julien’s pregnancy in the book is important, but her child’s father might actually be the biological savior of humanity, which makes his brutal death more tragic. It also somewhat diminishes the ending, although it’s more hopeful than the ones that I had been dreading.

The Road

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel is really depressing. It’s longer than The Children of Men (287 pages to 241 pages, respectively), but it’s easier to complete, in spite of its bleak content, because its tone and perspective are consistent from start to finish. The Children of Men alternates between journal entries written by Theo and third-person narration until Theo discards his journal; The Road is always told by an omniscient narrator.

McCarthy doesn’t provide names for the characters or explain how the world has come to its present state. He only gives essential information: the main characters are a man and his pre-adolescent son, and the world is covered in ash and wildlife is non-existent. Conversations can be hard to follow because speakers aren’t identified. Besides occasional flashbacks, the sparse writing reinforces the desperate, moment-to-moment struggle.

I haven’t read No Country for Old Men, but its movie adaptation has always given me a sense of McCarthy’s storytelling. He describes tasks in detail, like fixing the wheel of a shopping cart, to make people connect with the character who’s doing that task. I think this style might be wish fulfillment on some level because every man wants to be resourceful. Whatever the reason, the man in the book capably guides his son for the most part.

He does make serious mistakes along the way, but they’re understandable considering their constant search for food and safety. This cycle of desperation and their straightforward recognition of death makes the book difficult to read for extended periods. The movie didn’t have nearly the same level of impact for me because I read the book beforehand. Their endings are the same and, like Children of Men, are somewhat hopeful.

Inspiration

I suppose I should thank the people who are responsible for The Last of Us. This game, and the hype for its sequel, has intrigued me to read the books that have inspired the movies that, in turn, have informed the narrative direction of the game. I don’t know if I’ll ever be motivated enough to actually play them; I’ve watched a YouTube play-through of the first game and watch various plot summaries of the second game.

I do think that the franchise’s development studio has the chance to make their next game hopeful because the world that they’ve established isn’t, in my view, nearly as hopeless as the world of The Children of Men and The Road.