HBO’s “The Last of Us”: A Faithful Adaptation of the Popular Naughty Dog Franchise

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This review contains spoilers for episodes one and two of “The Last of Us.”

As an avid fan of one of Naughty Dog’s most popular franchises, I was excited but nervous to see what would become of HBO’s adaptation of “The Last of Us.” The action-adventure survival game, released on the PlayStation 3 and 4 in June of 2014, is set in a post-apocalyptic world and gained widespread attention thanks to popular YouTubers like Jacksepticeye and PewDiePie, whose playthroughs have garnered millions of views over the years. Within the first year of its release, “The Last of Us” sold over six million copies and received roughly 11 awards from 2013 to 2014, one of which was the BAFTA Games Award for Best Game (2013). 

The story follows Joel, a loving father from Texas, during a zombie outbreak caused by a fungus called Cordyceps. Immediately, our main character tries to flee the infected area with his brother, Tommy, and teenage daughter, Sarah. Sadly, during their escape, they encounter a soldier who was given the order to kill them on the chance they are infected. As a result, Sarah ends up passing away in Joel’s arms as the screen cuts to the opening title. Now, 20 years later, we continue to follow Joel as he tries to survive in the decimated city of Boston. After hatching a plan with his friend Tess to venture outside the quarantine zone (QZ) to find Tommy, we encounter Ellie, a 14-year-old with a sharp tongue and a stubborn personality. Joel and Tess are asked by Marlene, a leader of a rebellion group named The Fireflies, to take Ellie to a meeting spot outside of the QZ. They agree, marking the true start of the journey ahead of them. 

It isn’t long before Joel and Tess figure out why Ellie is needed elsewhere and is of high importance: she’s immune to the virus. While, at first, it’s unbelievable to the adult duo, the longer they spend with the bitten but normal-acting teen, the more her immunity appears to be true. Having lived in the aftermath of the outbreak for 20 years, the possibility of a cure has seemed improbable. Though, as Ellie and Joel soon come to learn, even with the possibility of healing the world, it may result in a lot of pain. 

Within the first two days of the show’s release, it accumulated over 10 million viewers, according to an Instagram post by @insidehbomax. Many are dubbing “The Last of Us” the best video-game-to-screen-adaptation ever, a big claim considering the popularity of “Arcane” and “The Witcher.” However, as someone who has played the original game, the sequel and the spinoff, I do believe that, so far, HBO Max has done an admirable job in paying homage to the beautiful original story. 

The show does the game justice for a number of reasons, one of which is the casting of our beloved characters. As the game already provided a standard for what our main characters Joel and Ellie looked and sounded like, there were lots of nerves and expectations circling about who was going to play them. However, it seems that Pedro Pascal, who plays Joel, and Bella Ramsey, who plays Ellie, have met these hopes. The two of them were both actors in the popular series “Game of Thrones,” though they were on different seasons. Pascal does a great job of adopting his role as Joel, the lost father figure. Until he meets Ellie — until he truly has a mission to succeed in and a goal to accomplish — Joel has a fairly normal life in the QZ. On the contrary, Ellie has been through many challenges due to living as an orphan and as a potential cure. While the first game dives little into Ellie’s backstory, Naughty Dog’s spinoff game “The Last of Us: Left Behind” solely focuses on Ellie’s history. I spoke with a fellow enthusiastic fan, Benj Salkind, on his thoughts regarding the casting: “Bella Ramsey is doing an incredible job of capturing all the nuances and charisma of Ellie, and it’s really fun to see several of the voice actors/motion capture actors from the original game reprise the roles or be cast in other roles. Even the Clickers [the zombies] are played by the original actors from the games, so everything about HBO’s adaptation feels like a love letter to fans of the source material.”

Another way the show is adding to the story rather than simply remaking it is through the scenes they change and add. Though the stories align rather synonymously, there are a few differences between HBO Max’s show made that have shaped the narrative. Apart from the change of dates — with the outbreak originally taking place in 2003 rather than 2013 — the show also changed the death of Tess. In the game, after telling Ellie and Joel she was bitten, she passes away in a gunfight with FEDRA, the last remnants of the U.S. government. However, in the show, she encounters the infected again and proceeds to blow up the building she was in along with them. To learn more about the layers of her death, listen to the latest episode of “HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast,” hosted by Troy Baker, the voice actor for Joel in the game. During their newest release, the showrunners Craig Mazin (creator of “Chernobyl”) and Neil Druckmann (writer and creative director of “The Last of Us” games) go into depth about her death’s meaning. 

The show also adds to the already-developed story and characters. In episode two, we are shown the background of the virus as it started in Jakarta, Indonesia. This is something we never saw in the game, and although the game’s story was not necessarily missing this element, it proves that the show adds to the complexity of the environment and is retelling the story, not remaking it. However, as Salkind shared, “HBO has done a great job so far, and I’m pretty confident they’ll keep it up as the story progresses…but the ending to the story is so jaw-dropping that there’s always a bit of doubt that it will live up to the perfection of the game.” 

One aspect of the show and game that likely captures people’s attention the most is Sarah’s death. From the very beginning of both depictions of the story, Sarah is treated as the main character. In the game, Sarah is the first character we play as, and in the show, we follow Sarah throughout her mundane day of going to school and into the city. The show builds the viewer’s connection to her as we see Sarah for a large portion of the first episode in comparison to the game, where Sarah dies within the first 20 minutes of the 15-hour and 30-minute game. Both act as though Sarah is someone we should get attached to and who we should start building a relationship with, which is why her death is so shocking. This is why Ellie’s presence, a young girl similar in age to when Sarah died, is so complex and layered. We know Joel’s past trauma and the protective nature of being a father, so now both Joel and the viewer are afraid to lose Ellie. 

This brings us to the overarching theme of the story in both the game and show: love. As Salkind shared, “For anyone that has yet to experience the story: As much as this show is advertised or portrayed as a ‘zombie show,’ this story is actually about love.” The interesting thing about love in “The Last of Us” is its depiction of what it leads us to do — for better or worse. In “The Last of Us,” love is the causality for practically every event and action each character experiences and commits (as we will certainly see as the show progresses). From Sarah’s death to Joel’s determination to go find Tommy, which leads him to Ellie, love is the catalyst for the major events and choices of the story. While it can be hard as a viewer to see characters make mistakes or choices we would refrain from, “The Last of Us” does well in creating realistic (loveable but flawed) and well-rounded characters. 

The series has only released two episodes, but longtime fans like Salkind are happy it is getting the proper recognition it deserves: “I’m glad it’s been a really great watch and well received by audiences who might not be as familiar with the source material as someone like me.” However, there is still much story left to be seen and hopes to be met: “I truly hope they can give us the very visceral and emotional bond that Joel and Ellie form in the game, as the rest of the story and the ending, in particular, will crumble if they don’t have that believable father-daughter connection,” Salkind shared.

Though the show only plans to release nine episodes in total, many presume this isn’t the last we’ll see of these characters. A sequel to the original game was released in 2020, and there is speculation that it might result in a second season of the show. Until then, remember what The Fireflies say: “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”