Jan. 15 marked the release of HBO’s critically acclaimed The Last of Us, taking up the honored HBO Sunday night slot. Originating as a videogame released in 2013, the show both expands on the original story for fans of the game and adapts the story artfully in order to cater to a mainstream audience.
In a single horrific night, Joel Miller, played by Pedro Pascal, finds himself confronting a new strange infection that turns people into monsters. His 14-year-old daughter is killed, and Joel is left with nothing but his brother and determination to survive. As hoards of infected people swarm the city, he is left to escape to the only safe place left.
Years later, Joel finds himself tasked with protecting a teenage girl whose blood holds the anecdote to the infection as they journey through apocalyptic ruins. The two spark an unlikely relationship as they travel. Joel wrestles with his paternal instinct to protect and the trauma of losing his daughter. Ellie Williams, played by Bella Ramsey, easily falls into the role of a bold teenage daughter as they journey together.
For director/writer Craig Mazin and creator Niel Druckmann, adapting the game into a TV show was a unique challenge.
“In the game, you do this performance capture, and everyone’s wearing this funny suit with these balls, and once you get their performance you have it in 3D. You can place the camera wherever you want, you can change their costumes, you can change the set, and you can even change the character,” Druckmann said.
TV production is more precise. Writers work with directors, and directors work with the set design, props, and costume departments. When a shot is taken, it is the final shot.
One of the biggest changes from adapting the game to TV is that the story is no longer told from only Joel or Ellie’s perspectives. This gives the writers room to expand on much of what was hinted at in the game.
“In the game, Tess tells you that she gets jumped. Here, you get to see it. It’s hinted in the game that there’s a romantic relationship between Joel and Tess, and here we see her crawl into bed with him,” Druckmann said.
The change of medium allowed the writers to further flesh out characters, with actors improvising minute details that never would’ve been captured in the game. Long-time fans watch as the world they fell in love with is made richer, while new fans become captivated by the story.
“This story […] you could never tell in the video game. It’d be impossible to jump around this much. Especially the game The Last of Us. It’s kind of more action-oriented. You couldn’t go this long without some kind of set piece, or some kind of action sequence,” Druckmann said.
While they were not the first, video game adaptations have a storied history of being executed poorly, resulting in negative responses from fans of the game and newcomers.
Despite certain plot points or storylines being removed or altered, Druckmann and Mazin ensured the fates and values of the characters were the same. This liberation allowed the writers to explore the story in a way they never could have imagined before, spotlighting other characters they could not in the game.
In trying to preserve the actors’ interpretations of the script, they were instructed not to play the video game.
“We wanted Pedro [Pascal] and everyone else to make it their own. Trust us that we put everything on the page that needs to be there. We’re not asking them to replicate anything else, because great performances come from the inside, not the outside,” Druckmann said.
Given the opportunity to make the characters their own, Pascal and Ramsey created a version of Joel and Ellie that are not only unique, but have old fans re-living the same charm that made them fall in love with the game’s characters.
Whether watching as a returning fan or a first-time viewer, it is easy to see that The Last of Us captures a unique take on fatherhood, love, and the old-as-time zombie apocalypse genre.
The Last of Us airs every Sunday at 6:00 p.m. PST for HBO Max subscribers. The show serves as an example of a franchise that was able to expand past its original medium; transforming into something far more accessible.