Whenever a video game gets adapted into a movie or TV show, the same question always comes up: how do you adapt a video game into a new medium? Of course, a major reason why this gets asked is that the list of decent video game adaptations is quite short—although it’s seemingly getting better every year. But the answer to this question seems both obvious and essential in the case of The Last of Us. On one hand, Naughty Dog’s game is one of the most cinematic games ever released, and it’s easy to see how this story could translate into another medium. But on the other hand, so much of what made The Last of Us work was our interaction with the characters of Joel and Ellie.
On The Official The Last of Us Podcast, actress Shannon Woodward succinctly said of the game, “you feel like you are personally making these decisions. You’re personally taking Ellie across the country. Everyone loves Ellie—they took her across the country. We all did.” Even though The Last of Us sold millions of copies and is adored around the world, for fans of the game, it feels like a personal journey we all went on, that we were the third person along for this cross-country quest, and that we experienced the things that Joel and Ellie experienced. The interactivity of a video game is one of its greatest narrative strengths, but rarely—if ever—has the impact of an interactive narrative hit as hard as it did with The Last of Us. Sure, the game is cinematic, and that makes it seemingly easy to adapt, but by transporting this story to another medium, it’s easy to see how that level of care, love, and dedication to this story could get lost along the way.
But HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us somehow manages to not lose any of the beauty and power that made the video game such a shattering experience. Instead, The Last of Us—created by the game’s director Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin—almost feels like a new draft of this iconic game story. While the narrative remains largely the same, Druckmann and Mazin take the opportunity to tighten up ideas, explore the lives of these characters with more depth, and hone the entire experience in a way that almost works in conjunction with the game to expand this universe in a truly stunning way. Druckmann and Mazin have made not only one of the best video game adaptations ever, and already given us one of the best shows of 2023, but shown us how an adaptation should be done.
The Last of Us takes mostly takes place 20 years after an outbreak in which most of the world’s population turned into hostile, zombie-like creatures known as Cordyceps, or were killed by said creatures. In this nightmarish world, we find Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler who must take a teenage girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the United States. Joel remembers the world as it had been, and has suffered immeasurable pain since the outbreak, which has left him hardened to the world around him. Meanwhile, Ellie was born in this new world, where loss and death are expected, yet she still maintains some semblance of childlike wonder and is still able to hope in a way that Joel seems to have lost a long time ago. Together, these two must face impossible odds as they cross through the terrifying world that has sprung up over the last two decades.
While on the surface, this might sound akin to a zombie story—and certainly the Cordyceps function in a very similar way—this is more of an exploration of the people who have survived these horrors and how they get by in this deeply painful world. Through Joel, Ellie, and an excellent cast of supporting characters, we see not just how this world can destroy and alter who these people are, but the joys and beauty that can occur even in the worst of situations. As we see in the first episode, when we follow Joel and Ellie in a Boston quarantine zone, there is graffiti throughout stating, “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.” The key to this idea is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and the bond between them that grows throughout this story. While Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson did a perfect job with these characters in the games, Pascal and Ramsey aren’t attempting to recreate those performances, but instead, are presenting their own takes on who these characters are, and doing so beautifully.
After seeing Joel’s life on Outbreak Day, the story cuts to Joel 20 years later, and Pascal plays him as a man in mourning for what was lost on that day. Pascal’s take on Joel is occasionally gruff and mostly silent, but in the moments of solitude, we can see him still reckoning with where his life has taken him since the outbreak. He’s grieving deeply and doesn’t know how to make the pain end. It’s a heartbreaking performance from Pascal, but it makes the humor and heart and love hit all the harder. Pascal’s Joel is a character that we know has done awful things—many of which we’ve seen—yet it’s impossible not to care for this man who is fighting to find meaning in his life.
But the bigger surprise here is Ramsey, whose take on Ellie makes this character feel like a real kid. Much like Ramsey’s performance in last year’s Catherine Called Birdy, Ramsey captures the childish joys and wonders that a kid would still have in this world, while also still clearly being a product of this grim world. While we watch Joel start to soften up throughout this journey, we see Ellie growing into an adult, self-sufficient, brave, and without losing that hope that makes her such a fun kid to watch throughout this story.
Pascal and Ramsey play brilliantly off each other, as we see the connection between them grow. Druckmann and Mazin make the scenes of quiet the most impactful for this pair, like watching them camp out for the night, telling terrible jokes to each other, and slowly realizing that they need each other in this punishing world. We get to watch this relationship blossom in a slow but steady way that sneaks up on the audience and these characters, to the point that even the simplest moments can have an emotional impact, like a character finding a can of Chef Boyardee for the other, or the natural way these two begin to have a shorthand with each other. These are great characters and performances separately, but when they’re together, that’s when The Last of Us is truly remarkable.
Yet maybe the most impressive part of The Last of Us comes in how the story explores its exceptional supporting cast, by expanding the stories of certain characters, strengthening stories that were already great, and taking the opportunity to make slight tweaks that make perfect sense in this universe. Joel and Ellie’s journey is full of characters that hold up a mirror to who they characters could’ve been, whether through the paths they could’ve taken or the people they could’ve become, and while that’s still the case in this show, they also feel like lived-in, real characters with their own tremendous stories to tell.
Sometimes these evolutions within the characters are relatively minor. For example, in the case of Joel’s daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), we see her interacting with her neighbors and preparing for her father’s birthday, or with Joel’s smuggling partner Tess (Anna Torv), we get small interactions and a quick line that enhances our awareness of what this relationship is. Some of these characters don’t need changing at all, as we see with the introduction of Riley (Storm Reid), in an episode written by Druckmann, where the story stays almost entirely the same. Druckmann and Mazin have gone over this narrative, figured out what could be done better—even if it’s in small ways—and improved this already excellent story.
The most major of these changes comes in the story of Bill (Nick Offerman), a survivalist who thrived post-pandemic, walling up his town, and closing off the world around him. In the game, Bill has a partner named Frank that is never seen, yet in the show, we get to spend time with Bill and Frank (Murray Bartlett) in an episode that fundamentally changes the purpose of the character, yet makes this overall story even stronger. The Bill and Frank episode explores the idea of how beauty can still exist in this world, how we can still learn new things about who we are even when we’re set in our ways, and enjoying the simple pleasures in life. The episode completely subverts what the audience is expecting from this character, and becomes one of the most tender and exquisite episodes of television I’ve maybe ever seen.
But this episode is also key to what makes this a truly great adaptation. While this story will likely be entirely new to those who haven’t played the game, for those who know the story, it’s making this story feel fresh in fascinating ways. The Last of Us is largely telling the same story, but in a way that feels new. There are changes, yes, but the heart is bigger, the quiet moments more powerful, and the love stronger. In a story that has already been embraced for its love, it’s incredible that The Last of Us as a show can heighten that even more, despite the depths of darkness this story dives into.
Druckmann and Mazin have done a truly remarkable job at retelling this story in a new medium, and while this game might have seemed ripe for adaptation into another format, making the intricacies and the subtleties of what made that game work come to life into a television show is exceptional. Not only did this pair write all the show’s episodes and directed a few as well, but they brought together a collection of directors that makes perfect sense for this story, an impeccable combination of filmmakers who have tackled similar themes in the past. For instance, one episode about a small community in the middle of nowhere is directed by Jasmila Žbanić, whose film Quo Vadis, Aida? was a bleak look at the shocking changes and dynamics within a small community during a horrifying situation; Ali Abbasi, director of Border, directs two episodes and knows how to meld love with a sense of unease and uncertainty.
In everything from the choice of directors to the decision to keep Gustavo Santaolalla’s heartbreaking score from the games, it’s clear that Druckmann and Mazin adore this story and took loving care in telling the story of Joel and Ellie in this new way. The Last of Us is a phenomenal retelling of a story that was already one of the best narratives ever told in a video game, and this version highlights the importance of varying perspectives in a way that will only become more important if the series gets a second season. Druckmann and Mazin have taken this unforgettable story and made it richer and more impactful, letting us live with these characters and this world in a way that we couldn’t in the game. The Last of Us is a monumental success, and in this universe of incredible darkness, Mazin and Druckmann show us the light that makes this story so powerful.
The Last of Us premieres on HBO and HBO on January 15, with new episodes airing every Sunday.