Video Game to adaptations have gained a reputation for being notoriously bad for as far back as the 1993 adaptation of “Super Mario Bros” to as recent as 2022s “Uncharted”. In the last few years, we’ve seen some pushback against this, with original stories inspired by video games such as last year’s “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” and the recent “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies proving to be a hit among fans. Next to be adapted, this time by HBO, is Naughty Dogs’ 2013 game, The Last of Us.
The epic series, set after the aftermath of a devastating fungal pandemic, follows smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he takes the immune Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic America in the hopes doctors can use her to develop a vaccine for the infectious cordyceps parasite. From the very start of the first episode, writers Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin take immediate advantage of the new media format they’re telling this story in. The episode opens before the outbreak, as scientists appear on a talk show to discuss pandemics and how they could be catastrophic, including what would happen if a fungal infection pandemic were to appear. This adds extra information that the game didn’t.
Fans of the game can relax because Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie feel recognisable, and the pair portray the unlikely pairing faithfully to the source material. Joel is a man hardened by the loss of his only daughter, and willing to do just about anything to survive in the hopes he can reunite with the brother he believes is still out there somewhere. Despite his obvious trauma, there are still traces of the old Joel left underneath; a caring father who, twenty years on, is still grieving for his daughter. He’s initially reluctant to transport this young girl across the dangerous terrain. Life following the outbreak is lawless and ruthless. Different factions have sprung up claiming ownership of certain places. Joel might be reluctant, but Ellie is a fourteen-year-old girl born and raised after the outbreak and the infected don’t scare her in the way they would most people as she’s always known their existence. She’s curious, intelligent, and a little bit careless, often ignoring instructions for her own independence. Pascal and Ramsey handle both characters with effortless ease, understanding what makes them work as compelling characters individually, and as a duo. They have amazing chemistry, their bond slowly deepening with each car trip or horse ride they spend together. In a scene pulled directly from the game, Ellie takes out an adult magazine, querying Joel with “Why are these pages stuck together?” A flustered Joel, still driving a car, starts stammering and stuttering his way to an explanation before Ellie laughs and says, “Just kidding!” before throwing the magazine out of the car window. It’s hard not to be sucked into their dynamic, and it’s in the quieter moments that they really shine.
Due to the road trip nature of the story, Ellie and Joel often find themselves meeting plenty of other characters. Tess (Anna Torv) is Joel’s smuggling and romantic partner, and they each have a sense of history between them immediately, often in sync. While Joel may not have the deepest bond with Tess, he still cares for her which is most evident through little looks they share and the occasional bickering. Ellie makes her own connections too particularly when she meets Sam (Keivonn Woodard), an eight-year-old deaf boy. The duo bond quickly through their love of comic books and toys whilst he teaches her sign language so she can communicate with him. It shows a different side to her character, and Ramsey pulls off the caring enthusiasm towards Sam, keeping him happy despite the scary circumstances they find themselves in. Both actors bring different dynamics to each character they meet on the road, finding other unique ways to sell you on their characters.
The set design is another astonishing piece of work for this adaptation. Some of the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Towers collapsing on each other, greenery climbing entire city blocks, and the sense of devastation everywhere they go. There are plenty of sets that feel lifted from the game. The decaying museum in episode two or the grimy abandoned mall. Visually, this show impresses on every front.
Craig Mazin has his hands full. Serving as co-writer, showrunner, and director of this first episode. Even before the outbreak, Mazin plays on the sense of unease that characters are feeling. During an early sequence where Joel, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), Joel’s brother, and Joel’s daughter Sarah (a mesmerising Nico Parker), try to escape town as news of the outbreak breaks and the place falls into panic and chaos. Shots are fired at the car, they have to manoeuvre around hoards of people and the whole thing is claustrophobic and exhilarating. There’s a sense of creeping panic as everyone rushes around with a limited view of what they can see. Soon, though, the car crashes and the camera pans around to reveal a barren wasteland. Those infected with the fungus chase the central trio with an inhuman desperation, crashing into things and twitching in uncanny ways. The entire sequence really gets your blood pumping and sets the tone for what comes next perfectly.
Another standout of the adaptation is their take on Clickers, an Infected type that has had their entire brain destroyed, reduced to nothing but fungal growth that sticks out of their heads. They have no hearing, instead relying solely on echolocation to hunt down prey, making haunting clicking sounds as they do. In the game, any section with the Clickers was sure to be a thrillingly tense and scary one, navigating in complete silence while the haunting clicks echo all around you. In their introduction, this fear is utilised perfectly, often focusing the camera only on our heroes as we hear the clicking in the background as they navigate the dark museum. It’s incredibly tense and manages to translate the fear of the Clickers without seeing them. The one downside is that this is the only time we come across a Clicker as a main enemy- they are woefully underused outside of this instance. It would have been ideal to have used one or two more of these scenes to break up some of the more drama-intense story segments so we would have gotten the chance to see more of these fantastic enemies.
There are some changes made in this otherwise faithful adaptation that might surprise players of the game. Originally, another way the parasite could transmit from person to person were fungal spores- often inhabiting enclosed spaces where characters would have to wear masks that filtered out the spores to keep from being infected. Here, they’re replaced by tendrils, vine-like growths that grow from the mouths of more recently infected. Alongside this, they grow across the world too, connecting the hordes of the infected like one giant central nervous system. On paper, tendrils should make the infected more of a threat, but it doesn’t feel that way. As opposed to spores, which were ever present throughout the entire game, tendrils only ever really matter once, and are forgotten soon after. While they have the potential to be used in creative and intimidating ways, they rarely scratch the surface. While the tendrils are clever, and make sense, they fail to capture the kind of invasive horror that the spores had due to their airborne nature. The spores, too, were also often used as a very clever contrast between Ellie and Joel- When in infested zones, Joel would need to wear a mask to avoid breathing in the spores. Ellie in contrast, could breathe the air normally thanks to her immunity. While that still exists here- she still gets bitten- it’s nowhere near as consistently present or imposing as in the game, and neither is the cordyceps infection. It isn’t the worst choice, and the tendrils show a lot of promise, but their underutilisation makes for an underwhelming change from the original.
The show does well fleshing out what we know from the game and exploring the world further. We get plenty more scenes set before the pandemic that helps fill out the backstory and reasoning behind the spread of the parasite. These scenes give the story more nuance and freedom to explore its themes and as a result, rarely anything feels wasted. We get more time with plenty of other characters who weren’t in the game. Joel’s daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) isn’t an afterthought as the first half hour of the first feature-length episode is devoted to her and her relationship with her father. This is all world building that didn’t exist in the game, and Nico Parker (last seen in The Third Day) does an incredible job in the role. Spending so much time with Sarah also helps us empathise with Joel as we know how much of a loss he’s had and we can share in his grief. Plenty of extra details and additions are mixed into the supporting cast throughout the show’s runtime, and it does nothing but good for the overall story.
Rules of the embargo forbid me from talking about a fantastic upcoming episode that digs into the backstories of two key figures from the game. The episode devotes the majority of its runtime to fleshing out and exploring these people. It manages to humanize them in ways the game did not achieve through major changes to their storyline, while still managing to remain true to the characters at their original core.
It’s a stunning example of how well this adaptation builds on the fantastic source material and looks more deeply at the characters that are key to the story.
It’s through examples like this that the series understands its job as an adaptation. Despite the few stumbles it may make, it has a deep and core understanding of what made the game work, and what made the game such a hit. It understands the gameplay techniques used, the level design, the characters and the story, and translates them to the screen in a way not really seen before. And alongside that, it knows what TV viewers want, people who may have never played the game. It takes the core story, and makes any changes necessary to deliver a compelling and gripping drama that takes advantage of its new format. The Last of Us is one of the most unique takes on the zombie genre we’ve seen, the show does a phenomenal job adapting and expanding the story’s scope that makes it a must-watch whether you have played the game before or not.
The Last of Us begins Sunday 15th January on HBO and Monday 16th January on Sky Atlantic.