What makes HBO’s The Last of Us so special? For almost every attempt that was made of it, adapting video games into movies and even TV shows has been failed experiment. It would seem so obvious—like trying to adapt the Mona Lisa into a movie, and I don’t mean the story of how the painting got made, the ACTUAL painting. Video games are a completely different medium than film and television, and removing player interactivity essentially removes the nucleus from the experience.
Almost every video game movie adaptation has been a critical and commercial bomb. From noteworthy stinkers like DOOM, to even films you’d think would do well, like Ratchet and Clank and Uncharted. You’d think that adapting video games—with their deep narrative and extensive gameplay—would be better suited to TV shows, as anyone who remembers the multitude of cartoons based on NES games from the 80s can attest.
This is why HBO’s The Last of Us stands out to me in such a unique way, having now wrapped up after its ninth and final episode for its first season. Seemingly learning from the mistakes of the past, The Last of Us takes the best elements from the game and delivers them in a way that better suits the medium it’s being adapted to. It’s not trying to. It’s not really trying to make viewers feel like they’re watching the game, nor is it really acting as a big advertisement for the games—it’s a genuine triumph of adaptation that is captivating even if you didn’t know its source material.
But that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t respect its roots. In fact, from the very beginning, Neil Druckmann was included alongside Craig Mazin, the two working in unison as someone who’s created compelling apocalyptic horror television and the one who brought the game to life in the first place. And Druckmann consistently proved throughout the show’s creation that he was malleable in better shaping the game’s plot to suit the change in medium. It could be why Uncharted was such a critical failure, as Druckmann stated on Twitter neither he nor anyone at Naughty Dog was involved with the film.
Druckmann’s oversight in writing scripts alongside Mazin not only allowed him to keep the show focused and reflective of the games but also fix and expand stories that were only really cursory in the game. Take the story of Bill, for example. In the game, Bill is a grumpy, almost token survivalist character, one who mostly exists to facilitate gameplay. When you find him in the game, you need a truck battery but Bill doesn’t have it, which means more gameplay mowing down Clickers. He’s given the kernel of a backstory, with only the implication that he was in a romantic relationship with his partner Frank, and Bill’s character drove him away.
But HBO’s The Last of Us has no need for the facilitation of gameplay, so instead, his character gets a complete rewrite showcasing a tenuous but loving relationship with Frank. The show chooses to focus on the good in Bill, and in the end, he’s given a bittersweet death, better highlighting the duality at the core of the game’s plot.
Much like with the game, the characters are the beating heart of The Last of Us, and the amazing performances by everyone in the cast—from Nick Offerman as Bill to Lamar Johnson as Henry, and Keivon Woodard as Sam adding much more inclusion to the show as a deaf actor; and so many more. But of course, the real standouts are Pedro Pascal, and Bella Ramsey as Joel and Ellie not only give the show as much weight and believability as the game but in many ways elevate it as both their performances feel much more unique and personal than just trying to mirror the game.
“…the characters are the beating heart of The Last of Us, and the amazing performances by everyone in the cast…”
In fact, the show’s greatest strength may be that it doesn’t simply mirror the game—which is why Druckmann felt that removing the spores was a better choice. He said it worked conceptually in the game but didn’t really fit the pace and structure of a TV show. Naturally, it follows the core plot of the game, focusing heavily on the most memorable moments of the game. It keeps things tight with action where needed, while keeping the spotlight on the characters.
This is honestly the best way I think I’ve ever seen this done. Too many adaptations either stray too far from the things that made them great or go too far in the opposite direction, trying to adapt, almost LITERALLY, the elements of the game. But as I mentioned earlier, the show doesn’t try to emulate a videogame while simultaneously removing its interactivity of it. But it does pay homage to its roots by lifting iconography or key dialogue lines right from the game so keen-eyed fans like myself can turn to their partners and say, “that’s straight from the game.”
What results is a show that managed to fit a roughly 18-hour game (including the DLC) into nine solid episodes, and at no point did I ever feel pandered to, or that I should just turn it off and play the game.
With the first season wrapped, many are wondering where HBO’s The Last of Us will go from here. Well, the most logical answer, it would seem to me, is to pick up the story from The Last of Us: Part II. Although, surprisingly, the final episode didn’t contain any acknowledgments or post-credit scenes highlighting Abbey as a character, so, much like the game, HBO’s The Last of Us could end after one season and be perfectly fine.
But we all know that isn’t how the Hollywood—or streaming service—machine works, and a second has already been confirmed. Longtime listeners of the Pixels & Ink podcast are probably aware that I took serious umbrage with the second game’s story, not for what it was about, but how it was told.
“HBO’s The Last of Us did such a good job with its characters…”
While I would like a season that focused on Abbey, delving into her past and making her more sympathetic, simultaneously making Ellie the villain she actually becomes. HBO’s The Last of Us did such a good job with its characters that it’s hard to imagine Ellie’s quest for revenge not having a deep level of pathos behind it. At the very least, the scene where Abbey fight’s the Rat King would be AMAZING.
It’s almost something that works against the show. In the game, Joel is a much more violent, hate-filled person, so his inevitable demise is somewhat more justified. But Pascal does such a good job of reinventing Joel—from his line delivery to his facial expressions—that his rampage to save Ellie is almost noble.
Where a second season could excel for HBO’s The Last of Us is to do what I thought the game’s sequel should’ve done in the first place: introduce NEW characters. Of course, Joel and Ellie could show up in minor roles, perhaps in an episode or two, but the game and, more so, the show have shown the strength of its storytelling is the lives of characters desperately struggling to stay good in a ruined world. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have two new characters struggling to get to a place or rescue a person, or just stay alive—figuratively and literally.
Whatever direction the show decides to go in, Druckmann and Mazin have clearly proven they know what they’re doing in turning this beloved series into high-quality, incredibly compelling television. Perhaps it will signal a change in the way games are adapted into film and television, utilizing the talent and vision of the game’s creators behind the talent and vision of screenwriters that know how to bring those games to life in a different medium. We may even be seeing the roots of this philosophy taking hold—seen in small ways like how Nintendo has been working so closely with Illumination on the upcoming Super Mario Bros movie.
However it may help shape the industry—fingers crossed that Netflix’s Bioshock is taking notes here—I believe HBO’s The Last of Us will go down as one of the gold standards for adaptations and will prove the concept is not unapproachable, so long as you put genuine talent, love and understanding behind the work.