Video games have notoriously been plagued by difficulties when adapting them from the source material into a new medium. The main reason being, out of the select games that have been adapted, the original is already cinematic enough, so recapturing the same essence that people who love the game has proved to be more of a risk than fruitful reward in the outcome in telling a similar story. That said, when it comes to one of the greatest video games of all time, The Last of Us, having the co-creator and director of the 2013 game of the same name and its 7-year removed sequel in Neil Druckmann on board, this adaptation already has a head start.
Add to it the creator of one of the most endearing dramatic miniseries Chernobyl in Craig Mazin and the two together are the only ones that can take a near flawless game and somehow make it better in a new medium. Set in a post-apocalyptic world with some shocking truth behind it, cordyceps that currently only affect insects in real life have mutated to attach themselves to a human host, sparking a fungal infection global pandemic that has no cure, and no hope for survival when either consuming the raw ingredient of flour or being bitten by an infected person.
To someone not familiar with the games, The Last of Us may very well be just another zombie story that will eventually become repetitive once the hordes of infected make their appearance. Certainly, the comparison to The Walking Dead has been manifested into the world but unlike The Walking Dead that gets stale quickly, the title of each series highlights their differences. The Walking Dead is about the dead, its right there with the zombies being the main draw to the human survivors. Whereas The Last of Us focuses solely on the last humans of this world and those that are surviving by any means necessary.
Whether its living somewhat uncomfortably in a Quarantine Zone in a major city or joining a group of anti-FEDRA rebels known as the Fireflies or breaking free from a QZ to start a commune with a bartering system, there are a number of ways to survive in this world that is expanded on from the game, bringing nuance to the series that wasn’t explored in 2013. Mazin and Druckmann writing the series gives the further exploration to non-playable characters that hasn’t been done previously – opening the potential for humanizing the most vile characters that reside across the country as the narrative unfolds.
Speaking of the story that developer Naughty Dog and Druckmann brought to life, The Last of Us follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), 20 years living into the post-apocalyptic world, given a task by Marlene (Merle Dandridge), leader of the Boston Fireflies along with Tess (Anna Torv) to smuggle Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to the Fireflies from Boston to somewhere out west. For those who have experienced the game, we know what to expect, mostly. Druckmann and Mazin take these two well-known and developed characters in Joel and Ellie and elevate their depth light years beyond expectations, subverting them into quite a few grim yet pleasant surprises.
It’s only in the first half that the threat of infected is truly felt. One of the many deviations from the game involve how the infected and the more mutated versions called ‘Clickers’ can communicate through a hive mind concept. After facing several familiar zombified versions of the infected including what’s known as a ‘Bloater’, the landscape shifts to ground the story and focus more on the living and the character’s interactions. Throughout the season not a single spore could be found, another deviation from game. Once the spores came into view, as a player it was understood that danger would be coming – that’s not the case for the series. The real danger is the living. Several key moments make their mark in the series the same way they play out in the game keeping a faithfulness to the source material – from the ambush to the sniper to the brother duo of Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard) to the breathtaking unrestrained action sequence in the finale. Gameplay and its complex mechanics are replaced by extended character interactions – some given a make over while others get a new coat of paint.
In all it’s destruction, the world of The Last of Us astonishes in its silence. 20 years later and the earth is taking back what it owns. In the desolate design each location provides a different atmosphere, yet the threat remains the same. Jackson Wyoming has a different feel than Colorado, Kansas City and Seattle. The amount of detail that’s put into creating a broken world is ripped from Chernobyl, death is full of life.
When we first meet Joel, he experiences the worst tragedy a human could possibly go through, and it stays with him from the outbreak in episode 1 to the finale that just aired this past Sunday. He’s a broken man, tortured, desensitized, and subdued by the darkness of the world who happens to find his humanity again through Ellie. And it’s in the finale titled “Look for the Light” that Joel sums up his entire existence post pandemic in one sentence. “You find the things worth fighting for”. Ellie is Joel’s humanity, she resurrected his spirit, time doesn’t heal his wounds, she did. Their relationship goes from cargo / protector to adoptive father / daughter. It’s in their looks to one another that these two have come to love each other.
Most of the time we are with them, it’s Joel and Ellie. Pedro and Bella don’t do a 1 to 1 imitation of the characters that they’re playing. Both being Game of Thrones alum, the two share a connection, though their characters never meet but coming from Game of Thrones each possess the mental toughness to get into the mindset of being in this world. If there was any doubt of Bella and Pedro’s ability to capture Joel and Ellie, the doubt is quickly extinguished. Pedro brings out Joel’s vulnerability and dissociative emptiness while Bella, who is a force of nature in every scene, strengthens Ellie’s innocence in an unforgiving and dangerous world. From her first word spoken, Bella is Ellie.
Throughout the narrative, Druckmann and Mazin keep true to the source material when it comes to this impossible journey. However, sprinkled in are unpredictable forks in the road serving the adaptation that wasn’t given more time to breathe in the game. For one, the side characters Joel and Ellie encounter on their journey all pop up where they’re supposed to but some of these side characters are given more of a backstory. The names may be the same and their overall impact on Joel and Ellie’s quest during key moments may as well but there are subtle and not so subtle differences made that only benefits the adaptation.
For one, Druckmann and Mazin add cold opens that are used to catch the non-gamers up to speed on the cordyceps virus and outbreak. Openings to episodes that still feel pretty raw to discuss after coming out of a global pandemic – the world may have moved on, but the wounds are still there. From there the side characters are given their moment to be explored in more ways than just simple back and forth dialogue.
Episode 3 titled “Long, Long Time” introduces us to Bill (Nick Offerman) a survivalist holed up in his well-protected and equipped basement. Bill is the one that is made to look tough and guarded with electrified fences and boobytraps surrounding his slice of town he carved out after FEDRA transported remaining citizens to the nearest QZ but it’s what we learn about Bill after he meets Frank (Murray Bartlett) that immediately changes the perception of his character and creates the nuance the game only hinted at. Spanning decades, Druckmann and Mazin attach the best of humanity to Bill and Frank’s relationship. We experience the joy of living, of being with someone who gives life purpose and when it comes to a halt, making the decision to move on with them. In this dark world, there is light all around us, it may be the Fireflies motto, but it applies to all of its characters.
Season 1 spans the entirety of the first game and then some. Druckmann and Mazin make it a point to squeeze in the DLC story Left Behind that shows Ellie and her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) in their last night together in an abandoned mall. Every deviation and departure from the game and DLC only strengthens the adaptation – what’s left out from the game like the gameplay and abundance of clickers isn’t missed. Several key members who worked on the game return to the adaptation. One being composer Gustavo Santaolalla, scoring the series along with David Fleming. Once the soft and subtle guitar plucks start, it’s Gustavo who transports us back into the world.
The Last of Us is the best video game adaptation that has been handled to this point. The additions of the original voice cast like Troy Baker who voiced Joel, Jeffrey Pierce who voiced Tommy (Gabriel Luna plays Tommy, Joel’s younger brother), and Ashley Johnson who voiced Ellie as cameos further solidifies the the ensemble cast committing to the series. With additions like Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen and Scott Shepard as David, Druckman and Mazin breathe new life and humanity into their villains. All in all, The Last of Us elevates it’s source material without sacrificing what made it special to begin with. Grief, trauma, and forgiveness are at the forefront of this beautiful and haunting story that has the ability to span mediums.
Created By: Craig Mazin & Neil Druckman
Episodes Directed By: Craig Mazin, Neil Druckman, Peter Hoar, Jeremy Webb, Jasmila Žbanić, Liza Johnson & Ali Abbasi
Music By: Gustavo Santaolalla & David Fleming
Cinematography: Ksenia Sereda, Eben Bolter, Christine A. Maier & Nadim Carlsen
Starring: Pedro Pascal & Bella Ramsey
Edited By: Timothy A. Good, Mark Hartzell, Emily Mendez & Cindy Mollo
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: January 15, 2023
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Based On: The Last of Us by Naughty Dog