If you ask any gamer their opinion on video game adaptations, you'll probably get some strong opinions on uniquely terrible movies like “Hitman” (2007), the “Resident Evil” series (2002-2016) or Angelina Jolie’s short stint as Lara Croft (2001-2003). 2016 was a good year for painfully bad adaptations, sporting “Assassin’s Creed,” “Ratchet & Clank,” “Warcraft” and the final “Resident Evil” chapter, creatively named “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” The TV market hasn’t had as many entries, but it’s had its own fumbles with “Halo” (2022) or “The Witcher” (2019-2023).
Recently however, there’s been a surge of good adaptations of beloved games, including 2019’s “Detective Pikachu,” “Sonic The Hedgehog” (2020) and its sequel (2022), and “Arcane: League of Legends” (2021). Each has its own issues, but on the whole, they are great adaptations. Luckily for us, this trend seems to be continuing, evidenced by what has been a nearly flawless adaptation of developer Naughty Dog’s magnum opus “The Last of Us.”
The 2013 game follows the characters of Joel and Ellie as they navigate their way across a post-apocalyptic country filled with zombies, scavengers and environmental dangers. The game was lauded by critics for its captivating story and compelling characters. The 2014 and 2022 remasters (for PS4 and PS5, respectively) substantially improved the visual effects, turning an already stunning game into a work of art. The 2023 HBO adaptation maintains the superb quality of the game and improves in some areas the game lacked.
One of the many challenges of adapting a video game is finding a way to adapt the actual gameplay. Very often, adaptations fail in this regard. I would describe “The Last of Us” as being 10% cutscenes, 20% exploration, and 70% skulking around throwing bricks at zombies. Showrunners Craig Mazin (“Chernobyl”) and Neil Druckmann (director of the game) have expertly utilized that 30% worth of cutscenes and exploration to drive the story, while giving some nods to the rest of the game.
However, I would have liked to see a few more nods to some of the more memorable gameplay. In the final episode, they included a scenario that the game often utilized — Joel giving Ellie a boost up before she lowers a ladder for him to climb up. These little acknowledgements of the gameplay add so much for those who have seen this story before, and it would have been nice to see a few more of them.
One thing the adaptation gets right is knowing when to change things. Often with adaptations — of any work, not just video games — showrunners try to make drastic changes to the story to disastrous effect. “The Last of Us” doesn’t make that mistake but rather leans into what the game excelled at (story) while making some changes to setting or pacing to round out the experience.
An area in which the show changes is its switching out Pittsburgh for Kansas City as the location for a mid-season set piece. What was a repetitive section in the game was transformed into an interesting new experience for both new viewers and those who played the game. The inclusion of a new character named Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) also helped elevate this chapter of the show to new grounds.
The third episode takes a much larger divergence from the game though, completely changing how the character of Bill (Nick Offerman) interacts with the story. This is a perfect example of the showrunners knowing when to change things. Bill’s story in the game was fun and interesting; his feuding with the pugnacious Ellie was a highlight of the game. But the show made a massive change to his story, and it turned out to be leagues better than the game. Episode three places a new focus on Bill’s survival in this post-apocalyptic world, and acts as a self-contained tale of loneliness and finding purpose. The episode is a highlight of not only the show, but of recent television history.
The show also chose to transform the character of Sam (Keivonn Woodard) — a young boy surviving with his older brother — into a deaf character. The interaction between Sam and Ellie as two children enduring the apocalypse is a sweet and progressive portrayal of both disability and childhood innocence. What was already a captivating part of the game was elevated into something breathtaking by the show.
One of my favorite parts of the show — and what I think is key to any good adaptation — is that anyone can get into it without prior knowledge. While I and many watchers have played the game, the show gives you all the pieces to understand the story and the world these characters live in. It does this without patronizing or info dumping, as many shows end up doing.
Bella Ramsey’s portrayal of Ellie stands out in its quality, while staying true to the character that Ashley Johnson brought to life in the 2013 game. Pedro Pascal brings his characteristic charm to the character of Joel. Between this show and “The Mandalorian,” Pascal has shown himself to be gifted at playing the role of reluctant adoptive dad.
I — like many — was wary when the show was first announced. “The Last of Us” is a property that many grew up with and is a story dear to our hearts. And in a world where IPs are constantly being picked up, adapted and rebooted, there was a strong fear that this adaptation would be another soulless cash-grab. Nothing could be further from the truth.
HBO’s “The Last of Us” is about as perfect as television can get, and is one of if not the best video game adaptation to date. I applaud everyone involved for their faithful and outstanding effort in bringing this story to so many more people.
The network has already greenlit a second season, which is sure to have plenty of people talking. The game’s sequel, “The Last of Us Part II” made some bold choices with its plot, and it will be interesting to see how HBO and the showrunners will adapt such a polarizing game.
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