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Why HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ is a Game-Changing Adaptation
A brief look at HBO's highly popular undead series in the wake of past games-to-film.
If we’ve learned anything from the first two decades of the 21st century, it should be how to survive the apocalypse, or more specifically, the zombie apocalypse. We all know zombie fiction has been in oversupply for quite a while. Our world has also survived three years of its own non-fictional outbreak. So you may have heard that HBO released a post-apocalyptic zombie drama in early 2023 based on a video game of the same name and wondered, Why? Do we really need more undead walking? 🧟♂️
I think the answer is yes. We needed this one. Ask almost any gamer worth their salt, and they’ll tell you The Last of Us is one of the most beautiful and haunting stories of our time. As a gamer myself, I was thrilled for my non-gamer friends to experience it through a more accessible medium. The Last of Us is the story of an extraordinary girl and the lost soul charged to deliver her—the challenges they face in a broken world where all kinds of infected monsters roam, including the monsters within themselves. It handles themes of hope, grief, survival, acceptance, tolerance, companionship and transformation in ways that made it such groundbreaking fiction in a game. That narrative needed a broader audience more than ever.
When Naughty Dog said they’d be turning their hit Playstation game 🎮 into a TV show, I could barely contain my excitement. The announcement came in 2020, a year most of us would like to forget. But for me, it was a glimmer of hope in our pandemic world… ironically about a story set in a post-apocalyptic, post-pandemic world. After what felt like an eternal wait, the series finally premiered on January 15, 2023. Season 1 had nine episodes and consistently grew its viewership episode by episode. From 4.7 million watching the pilot on the day it aired to almost double watching the finale. And I think there are several reasons viewers were as excited about this as many fans have been for a long time.
The Art of the Adaptation
First of all, it’s HBO. Not only is the network known for top-quality content, but they also made a very smart move for this adaptation: they hired acclaimed writer Craig Mazin. Craig recently crushed it with the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, a drama that also deals with apocalyptic concerns. And he’s a self-proclaimed fan of the game. This is important because the series adaptation (Season 1 as well as more seasons yet to come) has Neil Druckmann on board, writer and director of the video game. No one knows this story better than Neil, and he’d want to ensure his baby tackles this new medium with the best writing possible.
Of course, there was some initial eye rolling. Adaptations of popular franchises always come with skepticism and often disapproval—especially from die-hard fans. There is a reason for the saying, “the book is better than the movie.” It usually is. And for video game adaptations, this couldn’t be more true. If you look at the Rotten Tomato audience scores for games turned into movies, the numbers speak for themselves. A few examples: Assassin’s Creed (2016), starring Michael Fassbender, audience score 42%. Hitman - Agent 47 (2015), audience score 40%, Max Payne (2008) starring Mark Wahlberg, audience score 29%. Ouch. And the critic scores are even worse.
One outlier was Uncharted, an adventure movie based on the popular Playstation-only video game franchise (also by Naughty Dog… which could be important here). Critics didn’t love it. But audiences did. It has a score of 90%. Before the series aired we asked ourselves how The Last of Us would compare? Could it charm both the audience and the critics? And what makes a good video game adaptation? Should the cast have looked the same? Should they have reinterpreted their characters? What about the art direction of the world? Since films and games are both visual, should the scenes have been filmed as reproductions of the same moments from the game? How similar should the dialog have been? Well, the results are clear. Audience score 89%, critics 96%. Boom shakalaka!
When HBO announced the main cast for the series, fans of the game had mixed feelings. Pedro Pascal as Joel is doing a fantastic job. His acting performance is so real, so true to the character, while also giving Joel a sweet, lovable quality unique to the show. But there was a lot of initial chatter about how he doesn’t look like Joel from the game.
Consider that gamers spend hundreds of hours with playable characters, often dwarfing the time fans watch characters in TV and film. So it makes a lot of sense that gamers would be picky about the look and tone of their favorite game characters depicted on film. But maybe HBO understood that a healthy amount of interpretation and newness is exactly what this adaptation needed. Pascal certainly seems to think so. Unlike Craig Mazin, he has never played the game (according to him, he lacked the skill to do so—oh boy) and has wanted to keep a healthy distance from it so he wouldn’t be tempted to imitate Joel. We think that was a wise choice.
And what about Ellie? We all know the video game character looks like Elliot Page‘s little sister. But according to Naughty Dog, that was a complete coincidence. Back in 2013, when the first game was released, Elliot (at that time, Ellen) was not happy about the resemblance, and Naughty Dog even changed Ellie’s look to be younger. For the HBO adaptation, they’ve made another bold choice. Game of Thrones fans might remember Bella Ramsey as noblewoman (or rather noblegirl) Lyanna Mormont, and her performance was pretty badass.
The Last of Us is her biggest role to date. Lyanna and Ellie are both headstrong, brave, and fiery young women. But Ellie also has a sharp wit, and many fans wondering how she would approach that side of the character. Well, Ramsey nailed it. All of it. From her wise cracks to her annoying book of puns to her casual use of f-bombs, there couldn’t have been a better Ellie in my opinion.
The world of a video game can be anything the game designers dream up. And while modern visual effects have made that more and more true for film and tv, there’s a cost to having too many computer-generated settings in a show or movie. Realism can get overshadowed by the dazzle. The Last of Us relies on its grounded storytelling so that its occasional stunning set pieces can wow us. Still, there are settings in the game that the fans were probably waiting to see. Here are five of my favorite locations that made it into the show (without spoiling newcomers on why these are so magical). I hope other fans will agree:
The University of Colorado
The Abandoned Carousel - DLC
The Bostonian Museum
When Game of Thrones was nearing the end of its first season, fans of the novels 📘 couldn’t wait for their friends who had not read them to experience a key scene from the book. It was one of the most shocking moments in TV history. And it happened again at the infamous Red Wedding of Season 3. The show had plenty of differences from the books, especially in later seasons when there were no more books to take from (let’s not talk about the zombie they put in a backpack 🎒. Was it in a backpack? I remember it in a backpack). But the scenes where the books and the series aligned were essential to retaining the story’s spirit.
This was very much true for The Last of Us. I was, however, excited to also see new scenes that I didn’t experience in the game (Episode 3 FTW!). If you told me they existed in some secret DLC, I would pop the disc in right now to play it (oh how I’d love to plant some strawberries). But like those Song of Ice and Fire fans peeping at their friends from the corner of their eyes 👀 as they experienced vital scenes from the books, I could hardly wait for general audiences to enjoy some of the game’s most iconic moments. So as not to spoil those who haven’t watched the series yet, here are some images from the game that we got to see play out in a new but familiar way:
Hunting and being hunted
Bitten (From the DLC)
The Opening Outbreak
Sam and Henry
There are dozens more moments from the game that they faithfully adapted to screen, even if it was impossible for the creators to include everything.
HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation was as good and timely as I had hoped it would be. In my opinion, it rang in a new era—one in which video game adaptations can be treated more seriously by both studios and audiences. The Last of Us was a pioneer of video game storytelling. And I think it’s safe to say this series did the same for game adaptations! HBO has already renewed season 2 of the series, and it has been confirmed that the second game will be told over multiple seasons. Netflix has already announced development on an adaptation of Playstation’s Horizon Zero Dawn—another hit game with a great story and compelling characters. Amazon just released a first look at their upcoming Fallout series. We’ve seen how great novels and equally great film versions can stand alone as their own art. I think we can now say the same for great stories that originated in games.
Looking for other fans excited about HBO’s The Last of Us? Check out our TV forums and search for The Last of Us to see what others are saying and share your thoughts. And install the Remarkist app to attend or host watch parties and virtual events with fans of the series!
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