Since the leap to high fidelity animations, and under the inevitable march of progress, video games have developed something of a complex around ‘prestige’ drama. This is largely a trend in the AAA development space – mammoth budgets and countless creators working toward crafting interactive experiences that emulate the cinematic and dramatic languages of equally expensive prime-time television programming. Few studios have chased, and arguably kept pace with, this stylistic desire more than Naughty Dog. A studio with roots in deeply goofy bandicoot platformers slowly but surely made a powerhouse of leading cinematic games that pit players against hordes of treasure hunting goons and, perhaps most notably, a ceaseless, fungal apocalypse.
The Last of Us was in many ways the gaming industry’s loudest answer to the grenade lobbed its way by film critic Roger Ebert a lifetime ago— can video games be art? An immaculately rendered human drama that followed a broken man and his charge, a warmly witty teenage girl, on their harrowing trek across the shattered remains of the United States. It was a critical darling and a sales heavy-hitter, attracting widespread attention for its mo-cap performance quality, bleak world, and lead writer Neil Druckman’s dark but nuanced script. Arguably it achieved this degree of mainstream recognition through the imitation of familiar house styles from the likes of Showtime or HBO, juggernauts of the prestige TV drama that spent decades honing a language audiences recognised as legitimate.
One divisive sequel and several years of languished adaptation talks later, we arrive at the zenith of this creative cross pollination. HBO’s The Last of Us is every bit the show you would picture in your head upon hearing the title. This retelling of the events of the first game fluctuates between unerring, reverential loyalty and flashes of inspired deviation, though which of these is a detriment and which a betterment I imagine will vary greatly between viewers. We once again follow Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they fight their way across a violent pandemic-ridden America that has seen much of its population rendered into fungal zombies and left the rest in an unending war between idealists and totalitarian organisations. Interspersed and intersecting with this journey are small but impactful glimpses of the wider devastation of the world. Vignettes and supporting characters that attempt to build out the world of The Last of Us in ways a videogame is often inherently unable.
Some scenes will feel very familiar in HBO’s The Last of Us
How successfully this adapts The Last of Us is a question I’m still grappling with after finishing all nine episodes. Fans of the game coming to the show for an expensive retelling of events will be largely satisfied as Druckman served as co-writer and the show’s script is often one-to-one with the games. Unequivocally the biggest success here is Pascal and Ramsey’s work as Joel and Ellie, two lead performances that perfectly capture the essence of these characters without losing the charm of both actors in straight copy-cat work. Pascal’s Joel is a dangerously simmering pot of trauma points, a man prone to violence and stoic stubbornness but not without sympathy. Meanwhile, Ramsey is as close to perfect casting as you could ask for for Ellie as she nails the delicate balance between competency and dependency a teenage girl raised in this world would exhibit. The two have decent chemistry and enough enthusiasm in their performances to pick up any slack left by the writing.
Showrunner and co-writer Craig Mazin, best known for his stunning work on HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, is an inspired choice for this adaptation. Chernobyl is a harrowing work that expertly dramatises the scientific nature of its namesake, using the clinical reality of such tragedies to prop up compelling and heartbreaking human stories. Mazin’s The Last of Us opens with this same sense of style as a talk show host in the 60s tries desperately to make light of scientists discussing the world-ending probability of certain outbreaks. Flashing forward, a quiet-mannered scientist is ushered away from her lunch and shown a victim of a mysterious bite before softly and assuredly recommending the government start bombing major population centres. It’s Mazin at his best, detached and dry science focused take on a uniquely gross zombie apocalypse.
The Last of Us also leans into its episodic nature to recontextualise certain events and characters from the game. Far and away the best of these deviations is the considerable amount of time dedicated to fully realising Bill and Frank’s relationship, a love story that was only hinted at during the game. Here Mazin and Druckman craft a surprisingly tender queer story that doesn’t shy away from the awkward intimacy that can occur between two men, or the nature of such things in a world like this one. Nick Offerman’s turn as Bill is something to behold too, and while there are sure to be raised eyebrows over how these changes impact established events, the show is better for it. Nico Parker also gets a significant screentime increase as Joel’s daughter, delivering a fantastic performance amid an otherwise uninspired pre-apocalypse first act.
Tess and Ellie in one of The Last of Us’ many gorgeous shots
Elsewhere, Yellowjackets star Melanie Lynskey tries her best to elevate an original character, playing a freedom fighter placed directly in the path of game characters Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard). While Mazin’s scientific vignettes and warmer stories exhibit the best of the show’s attempt to expand the world, Lynskey’s Kathleen is one of its harder stumbles. A haphazard and unsatisfying power corruption narrative that posits that, “Hey, anyone could become the murderous totalitarian given a chance,” Kathleen’s arc is entirely too short and clunky to feel satisfying, with Lynskey buried by a script that needs her to go Joker mode on kids.
While these changes to the source material are uneven, they are at least a sincere effort at proper adaptation, which is to say that there are things the show could and probably should do better than the game. To embody ‘the last of us’ as an idea, not just a title. The game excels in its tight focus, but the show had the opportunity to use its inherent scope to build an even stronger framing for Joel and Ellie’s story to exist within. Instead, HBO’s The Last of Us is primarily a loyal retelling that abandons its new ideas mid-way through the season, introducing a whole host of pacing issues in the process. The nature of the game allowed for breathing room between major story beats that the show glides by in the span of minutes while also overindulging in scenic shots and minutia. It’s paradoxically rushed and sluggish at times, an unfortunate by-product of its strict adherence to game events.
For general audiences, by which I almost strictly mean those who haven’t played the game, these scene recreations will play fine. Nothing revolutionary for the genre or the medium even, but a decent bit of television to round out the day. For those familiar with the original work though, HBO’s The Last of Us serves as a strange comparison point, with major moments often written and framed better in the game than in this adaptation. The iconic fight between Joel and Ellie springs to mind, with the game’s emotionally tense exchange translated into a well-acted but tonally muted version of itself here. It’s not entirely unsuccessful— the inclusion of The Last of Us’ DLC content Left Behind is a delight and serves as another strict reminder of Ellie’s queerness and world-views— but given the strengths of Mazin as a writer I can’t help but wish for a The Last of Us adaptation that was fully invested in the game’s world as well as its central narrative.
The clickers feel gross and deadly in live-action
All of this is couched in an aesthetically pleasing but overly noted visual language, like postcards from an apocalypse rather than an organically devastated world. Establishing shots radiate the same sheen as a Range Rover commercial, with unironic deference given to Americana imagery in a show that often laments the violent nature of its government and citizens. Building interiors are almost sculpted in their decay, including the egregious Fireflies graffiti that passed for world-building in a 2013 game but feels clunky in a live-action production. Action directing and editing feel choppy too, meaning the show’s occasional bursts of violence are difficult to track and forgettable.
That said, it is a treat to see The Last of Us’ infected realised in live action. These creatures are adapted with fantastic care, moving through the world in a sickening, interconnected infection that look, sound, and feel terrifying. Unlike the games, these infected don’t spread through airborne spores but rather a horrifying set of mouth tendrils, a creative choice I’m mixed on but always glad to see body horror on this scale. Original game composer Gustavo Santaolalla also returns to score the show, further showcasing how its better elements are often lifted from the source material wholesale
HBO’s The Last of Us lands with a polite thud. In its well-meaning efforts to neatly emulate a game that was itself emulating a HBO TV show, it delivers a decently crafted end-of-the-world drama. Pascal and Ramsey do more than their fair share of the heavy lifting here as the world around them can often feel thinly sketched but they both maintain deeply human and compelling performances. In the lead-up to the show’s release, Mazin and Druckman lamented the state of video game adaptations and in that sense, they’ve effectively achieved what they set out to do. This is a video game story turned into a perfectly acceptable television series— take that as you will.
Episodes supplied by production company