Film and TV

The Last of Us on HBO is That Rarity: A Successful Adaptation of a Video Game

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us.
Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us. Screenshot

The Last of Us is HBO’s new series based on the popular video games made by Naughty Dog. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States after a fungal infection envelops the world resulting in people becoming zombie-like spore creatures whose only mission is to spread the fungus to other living things.

Unlike many other adaptations of video games, it works. The world's basic setup is very familiar: zombie-style world-building akin to something like The Walking Dead, but the game and series' strong points are its main characters, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), and their journey across the ruins of America.

The games always seemed like they wanted to be a film, from their vocal performances, long cutscenes, character development, and emotional stakes, all of which were integrated into the gameplay. In fact, Neil Druckmann, creator of the games, is helming the series together with Craig Mazin (HBO’s Cherynobol.)

We first meet Joel in Austin in 2003, as he deals with the harrowing beginnings of the fungal infection spreading across the country. He attempts to escape the area with his young daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna),and Sarah is killed by a soldier as an overzealous military tries to combat the threat.

We meet Joel again 20 years later in a colony in Boston, run by a quasi-fascist remnant of the U.S government, shoveling the remains of dead people into a furnace, including a small boy who was euthanized after being found outside the city walls. The world is a grim place within the confines of this colony and Joel a hardened survivor.

Joel is someone capable and violent — others involved in the city's underworld dealings are legitimately scared of what Joel might do if he finds out they have wronged him. He is a broken man who only trusts in himself, with no real connections outside of his smuggling partner Tess (Anya Torv).

In comes Ellie, an angry 14-year-old girl who has great importance to the fungal infection and the world (We won't say why if you haven't seen it). Joel is tasked with smuggling Ellie out of Boston to the Fireflies, a rebel group in opposition to FEDRA, the government group in charge of the colony. Both Joel and Ellie are in dire need of some sort of companionship and trust in their lives, and that's essentially what much of the story is about: Joel and Ellie developing trust in a broken and brutal world. Pascal already has experience being a sort of reluctant father figure to an important and precocious child (The Mandalorian), and Ramsey fits as the young person who needs protecting but, most of all, kinship with him.

The first episode, like most first episodes, has a lot to set up. It has to establish the world, show how the post-fungus world works, establish Joel's tragic backstory, establish Ellie as something more than just a random captive girl. It packs all of that in, and from the second episode, will let the rest of the season be able to hit its stride as it focuses its gaze more toward the two essential characters and the mission at hand.

There are several video game-type moments and buildup throughout the two episodes. It's very objective based and point to point once Joel, Ellie and Tess set out into the ruins of Boston. The “mission of the week” feel the show has so far worked in a sense that week to week, we can be in a new place, a new part of the journey, and just keep everything rolling in a way that is engaging episode to episode, knowing we are going to meet new characters and new obstacles and more of the world is revealed to us.

The first two episodes feature two cold opens. The first cold open features a talk show in the 1960s where two scientists are debating if a fungal infection could cause a disaster in the world with a chilling explanation of everything that could happen if the hypothetical fungal infection could take hold.

In the second, we are put in Indonesia in 2023 before the infection envelops the world, as an expert is called in to make sense of the beginnings of the dangerous outbreak in what is a creepy and gut-wrenching scene that ends with the great Indonesian actor Christine Hakam telling the military their only option to stop the spread is to bomb the city. These cold opens add context but also show that the series isn't settled with just making a good adaption but a great season of television, a true blockbuster HBO Sunday night affair, and so far, it's doing it.

The Last Of Us is succeeding as a prestige TV adaption of a video game. The horror aspects are thrilling and are only starting to really gear up. Some major guest stars will appear in the next few episodes, like Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation, Devs) and Murray Bartlett (The White Lotus). The show is good and popular, everything it was predicted to be, with its established intellectual property and HBO-backing. Now we wait to see if it can be great.

The Last of Us streams on HBO and HBO Max.
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Contributor Jamil David is a native Houstonian and Texas Southern University alumnus. He is interested in TV, sports and pop culture. @JMLJMLD
Contact: Jamil David