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 notable differences between the game and the movie, but video games in general 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. Their similarities are more obvious at a surface level.

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, as their authors had intended, my experiences weren’t totally enjoyable.

The Children of Men

PD James’s The Children of Men, published in 1992, and Alfonso Cuarón’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. Cuarón, who co-wrote the movie’s script, refused to read the book beforehand. Thus, in some ways, the movie has more in common with The Last of Us than its source of inspiration.

The Children of Men is fairly boring for its first two-thirds or so. Nothing interesting happens until Theo encounters Julian, his former student who has sought his help, and time passes before he agrees to join her ragtag group of political activists, The Fishes. The pregnancy revelation is made much later in the book compared to the movie, and Julian is the expectant mother, not a young woman in her care.

To be fair, the beginning of the book describes its world, and the middle sets the stage for its tense climax. Theo’s journal entries establish the mundane futility of daily life, and they 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, Julian, and the other Fishes set out for the countryside because Julian wants to give birth in seclusion.

Xan is an interesting villain because he isn’t totally evil. He’s ambitious and autocratic, sure, but he’s not malicious. As a result, the danger that he poses to Theo and The Fishes is surprising when it’s realized, but, in hindsight, that danger is foreshadowed. The conflict in the movie is less interpersonal because Xan is non-existent. Theo does have a cousin, Nigel, whom he visits in the movie, but their relationship isn’t central to its plot.

One noteworthy difference between the book and the movie is the nature of the worldwide reproductive problem. In the former, men are infertile. Julian’s pregnancy is integral to the plot, but her child’s father might actually be the biological savior of humanity. This possibility makes his brutal death even more tragic, and it somewhat diminishes the hopefulness of the ending, although it’s more hopeful than the ones that I’d 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, on the other hand, 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 natural life 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, like fixing the wheel of a shopping cart, in great detail to make readers connect with the characters who are doing those tasks. This style might be wish-fulfillment, because every man wants to know how to do things. Whatever the reason, the man of this story 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 had read the book beforehand. Their endings are mostly the same and, like Children of Men, somewhat hopeful.

Inspiration

I should indirectly 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 it; I’ve watched a YouTube play-through of the first game and watch various plot summaries of the second game.

I do think that Naughty Dog, the development company that makes these games, has the chance to make their next game hopeful. In my view, the world that they’ve established isn’t nearly as hopeless as the worlds of The Children of Men and The Road.