When Naughty Dog initially released The Last of Us in 2013, it was lightning in a bottle for the gaming industry. From the first moments of starting the game, you knew this was something different. The premise itself was nothing new; pop culture was already dominated by zombie stories that same year – World War Z, Warm Bodies, and The Walking Dead, to name a few. So what made The Last of Us stand out? Its radical cinematic presentation combined with the rigorous and immersive survival-horror mechanics, as well as its unique twist on the zombie trope. The game has sold millions of copies, charted many best of all time lists, and for better or worse shifted the gaming industry’s direction for nearly a decade. Now, Neil Druckmann, creative director/writer of both games, and co-writer Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) hope to recapture that magic with The Last of Us on HBO.
Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) is no stranger to the “dad-core” genre, and effortlessly embodies the beloved character of Joel Miller. It may take some time for you to fully see him as Joel if you’re used to the games, but by the end of this first season, it’s undeniable that he’s fantastic in the role. Joel is a cynical man living in a post-apocalyptic world after having lost his daughter. He’s feared by many and loved by fewer. He’s gruff, resourceful, and not above resorting to violence to survive. Pascal succeeds in portraying all of this perfectly while still making the role his own.
Opposite Pascal is Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) as Ellie, a brash 14-year-old girl who discovers she’s immune to Cordyceps, the mycelial virus that has devastated Earth’s population. Ramsey is incredibly dynamic as Ellie; they play her humor and wonders at the open world well, also giving weight to the character during her more vulnerable, emotional moments. Supporting our main duo in the opening episodes are the charismatic Gabriel Luna (Terminator: Dark Fate), who plays Tommy, Joel’s younger brother, and the always great Anna Torv (Fringe) as Tess, Joel’s lover. The two do an exceptional job playing off Pedro Pascal and their characters provide key insight into who Joel was before and after the pandemic started.
With an episodic series format on HBO, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have managed to expand the scope of The Last of Us in clever ways with their writing. Often vignettes will be inserted into episodes highlighting aspects of the story previously unseen by viewers and gamers alike. These can comprise of supplementary information about the outbreak itself, or a look at a past event that has brought a character to where they are now. One such expansion from the cast is Bill (Nick Offerman), a paranoid survivalist who plays an essential part of Joel and Ellie’s journey in the game. Where before his past was elucidated by the player making their way through the level, speaking with Bill and finding fragments of his story via clues, here the show elects to dedicate a considerable amount of time unraveling his past.
Narrative deviations from the video game in HBO’s The Last of Us can be unexpected, yet quite effective. With Bill’s origin in the show, it endears the audience to him and his partner, Frank (Murray Bartlett), prior to our leads meeting them. Smart changes like this elevate as well as expand on the material being adapted in a way that the game simply didn’t have time for. Other new additions include original characters like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the leader of a militant revolutionary group in Kansas City, and how she intersects with Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard). Players of the game will of course remember these two brothers who come upon Ellie and Joel while also trying to escape the city. If you can believe it, Johnson and Woodward give the characters even more depth than in the game, leading to some very heart-wrenching and satisfying storytelling.
This newly invented portion of the plot with Kathleen, Henry, and Sam provides the middle arc of the season with some much-needed and well-directed video game-level-like action. These elements are also preoccupied with the same questions that Neil Druckmann himself was asking in 2020’s The Last of Us Part II. What does it take to survive? What is the nature of revenge – is it justice? Self-serving? How far is too far? All of these questions could have been answered in a multitude of ways. However, in HBO’s The Last of Us, unlike with the critically-acclaimed Part II, Druckmann paints too hard a stroke in one direction, losing the potential nuance regarding the revolutionaries and reducing them to the same one-note characters that the hunters from the original game were.
The detailed locations and gorgeous visuals of the original game are incomparable. From dilapidated and flooded subway stations to eerie and overgrown metropolitan areas, these images communicated to the player just how far modern civilization had collapsed. Unlike many video game adaptations, HBO’s The Last of Us manages to effectively recapture the aesthetics of the source material – most of the time. We follow Joel and Ellie as they wade through murky green water and travel through crumbling buildings. The show’s set design and direction gives much of the same look and tense feelings as the game. Any fan will appreciate this. Unfortunately, there are times when the HBO series dips in visual quality. The lighting can often be flat and environments can be stark in cases where the game was the opposite. Admittedly, these instances may merely be due to the restraints of adapting a vast game into live-action.
What did translate effortlessly from game to show was the emotional core of the narrative. At its heart, The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie finding a home within each other, finding a respite from the harsh cruelty of the hopeless world by protecting and caring for one another. It’s simply beautiful. It’s why the game resonated so deeply with millions around the world. With the writing from the game already so strong, as cinematic as it gets, and the series being written by its original creator and the mind behind the nail-biting Chernobyl, it should come as no surprise that HBO’s The Last of Us is just as moving. Perhaps even more so in some respects, as the show allows the story more time to breathe in certain parts. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s performances are of course what really sell and give new life to it.
HBO’s The Last of Us series is one of the best examples of adaptation done right. While at times it doesn’t compare to the breadth or visuals of its namesake, it takes the story and finds many clever and powerful ways to elevate the material. In addition, original game composer Gustavo Santaolalla once again provides a touching score that bolsters the performances, saturating every scene with emotion. This is something that all adaptations should aim for but rarely do they try or succeed. Just like with the 2013 video game, the show forces the audience to reconcile their love for the characters vs. the morality of what actions they see unfold on screen. It’s powerful, bold, and will no doubt leave both new and old fans incredibly satisfied. Hopefully, this does well enough so Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin can return to adapt the sequel in a second season!