With The Last of Us, HBO leapfrogs all the usual video-game adaptation pitfalls
The best thing about HBO’s new series adaptation of 2013’s hit videogame The Last of Us is that you don’t have to play it. Apart from its commercial success–the game sold more than 20 million copies across multiple PlayStation consoles–people widely consider The Last of Us one of the best game narratives ever made. With a surprisingly thoughtful thesis on the power of parenting amid a catastrophic viral apocalypse, the game compelled players like me to play through till the end, not because it was fun to play, but because the story was so strong.
The critical huzzahs for its top-notch prestige-TV adaptation make it easy to forget: the original game’s controls didn’t always cooperate when you had to kill or sneak around hundreds of erratic-behaving zombies to get further in the story. The game could be repetitious and frustrating; the narrative, particularly the ending, were worth the struggle.
HBO’s nine-episode adaptation of the original game (a sequel came out in 2020) makes up The Last of Us: Season One. Based on the pilot episode the aired Sunday, The Last of Us will likely deliver the same compelling tale as the videogame minus all the Game-Over frustration. The game’s writer/creative director Neil Druckman and one of the big brains behind HBO’s similarly grim Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, are the showrunners of the series and from the first scene, we’re in good hands.
In a bit that doesn’t appear in the game, we see a 1960s-era talk show featuring scientists floating the idea of a fungi-based extinction event. This lays out the scientifically possible why of the series quickly and with panache. Then, we’re in 2003 Austin, Texas, shortly before a viral outbreak forever breaks the life of Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a single dad who works in construction. 20 years later, Joel is shoveling cremated human remains in a militarized zone in Boston where they pay in faded paper tickets.
Mazin knows from bleak, diseased urban landscapes and even in the first episode, we can already see what 20 years of societal collapse has done to the sunken nearby skyscrapers and to the humans who are themselves just scraping by under martial law. Like Station Eleven, The Last of Us finds unlikely beauty in the collapse of humanity with moments of visual grace amid ugly violence and squalor: the dust motes hanging in the air as a worn curtain waves, an exquisite old radio popping to life by a window used to communicate smuggler codes.
But the main story, set in motion by the end of the nearly 90-minute premiere, is that Joel and his romantic-partner-in-crime Tess (Anna Torv) must transport a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of Boston. Ellie, for reasons not yet made explicit on the show, is important and must be protected at any cost. Players of the game know that there are grossly mutated zombies, very bad humans, and lots of climbing ladders and traveling through murky tunnels to come. But the real meat of the game, what made it special, was how the relationship between Joel and Ellie develops so gradually and organically that the player (and hopefully the viewer by the TV season’s end) becomes truly invested in their ongoing life-and-death struggle before they understand why.
Audiences will need to trust that, even if it’s the umpteenth TV show about Mankind Dealing With a Pandemic or Other Mass-Extinction Maguffin, The Last of Us has something interesting or new to say. If we get to the same ending that concluded the original game, or anything close to it, I can assure you that the adaptation will be worth the journey.
The show will need to maintain the great pacing of the first episode, which contains just enough pre-apocalypse backstory to make Joel sympathetic, for another eight episodes. That shouldn’t be a problem if the show follows the storyline of the main characters exploring out into the wider world what a fungal pandemic has wrought upon that world; there’s plenty of story to tell. Pascal makes an excellent Joel with a likeable, weary warmth that, except for a goofy turn in Wonder Woman 1984, makes the actor his generation’s Jeremy Renner But With Range.
Videogame fans are used to terrible adaptations of games into films or TV shows; it’ll be interesting to see how they react to what so far looks to be one of the most seriously considered and well-executed ones to date. With excellent source material and confident hands at the wheel, all HBO’s The Last of Us has to do now is not lose the thread.