More so than any other game, I’ve always thought The Last of Us would be perfect for a TV adaptation. The game is all about spending time with brilliant characters and watching relationships blossom, and a TV show would give the story a chance to breathe.
With Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as Joel and Ellie, HBO’s new flagship show tells the first game’s story, albeit with a few changes.
Thanks to some stellar performances and positive plot additions, Season 1 of The Last of Us is a great adaptation.
A familiar story well told
As Naughty Dog’s game does, The Last of Us kicks off with Joel as the outbreak begins. Not only does it do a commendable job of recapturing the game’s powerful and devastating opening 30 minutes, but it also provides valuable additional context to the outbreak itself and the world Joel knew in 2003.
There are scenes that give insight that the game doesn’t into how the outbreak began, what the government did to limit the spread, and quite how terrifying it would have been for those caught up in it.
What follows is a brutal, intense, and often touching road trip across the United States 20 years after the infected started to make their presence known. As anyone who’s played the game will know, The Last of Us tells an incredible story about two characters finding their way in such a drastically different world. The overarching story of HBO’s adaptation is the same, and it focuses on all the same themes as the game: love, loss, guilt, and survival.
I don’t think there was any need for HBO to tinker with the story too much, but it’s not without its changes, for better and worse. It does mean that The Last of Us isn’t the set-piece-filled epic you might expect from an HBO tentpole, but it makes for a more well-rounded story that matches the tone of the game. It may be too slow for some viewers, focusing on the relationships as you watch them develop rather than large-scale fights and dramatic moments. The characters you follow and encounter along the way are just brilliant.
Adding new context to the story
As I mentioned, adding context to the story of the outbreak itself, as well as Joel and Ellie’s backstories, which are sprinkled throughout the nine episodes, does wonders for the show’s worldbuilding. Without spending unlimited time exploring and taking in the environmental storytelling that the game allows, being given additional story in the form of new scenes is vital.
Examples of this come throughout the show, most of which are best kept a secret, but none are more significant than in the third episode. It alters how Joel and Ellie meet one of the game’s side characters, instead choosing to tell their backstory in detail massively above that provided in the game.
It’s a brilliant episode (the best of the nine and one of my favourite episodes of TV in a long time) that tells a story the game couldn’t. Alone, it’s a touching addition that does a wonderful job of expanding The Last of Us’ world. Having gone back to the game alongside watching the show, having only played Part 1 on PlayStation 5 in September of last year, episode three, as well as some of the show’s other added context, gave me a new appreciation for it, making some moments better than ever.
Not all changes work
There are only a couple of alterations to the core The Last of Us story that would have been better left unchanged. The most significant of those is the decision to remove the idea of spores, which is how the infection can spread in the game, and replace them with tendrils. Rather than the air being filled with the cordyceps infection as it does in the games, the fungus creates a massive system of links throughout the world. Disturb the fungus in one place and it’ll awaken it miles away, drawing infected to the initial interference.
As an idea, it’s fine, and I’m sure there are some technical reasons behind the decision to make the change, but it robs The Last of Us of some of the game’s tension and horror. There’s no donning of gas masks to creep through infested basements or scrambling for a shiv to take out one final clicker. Avoiding the infection is a constant consideration for the characters in the game, but not so much in the show.
HBO’s adaptation doesn’t lean into the horror side much, in all honesty. Full episodes can go by on more than one occasion without a single infected showing up. It never feels like the world is overrun by clickers and runners, with human bad guys as the real antagonists. There aren’t really any truly scary moments in The Last of Us - the show doesn’t quite have the constantly tense atmosphere that the game does.
Focusing on the central characters instead of the infected isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as those characters are the strengths of The Last of Us. If you were looking for the next Walking Dead though, The Last of Us isn’t it.
The story also lacks some of the game’s best and most intimate moments between Joel and Ellie. Their relationship still blossoms naturally and you can’t help but feel a connection with them as the final episodes approach. I just wish some of the cuter, less impactful moments made the cut for the adaptation.
The star of the show
Joel and Ellie’s central relationship is once again carried by brilliant writing and performances. Some of the supporting characters stand out - again, episode three shines - but Pedro Pascal and, in particular, Bella Ramsey, are brilliant.
Pascal is great as an intense and haunted Joel, and his additional backstory makes the character a bit more well-rounded, but Ramsey is the star.
She’s more softly-spoken than Ashley Johnson and never seems quite as vulnerable as the original Ellie. Instead, she’s feistier and funnier, and the added context of her backstory means she’s not so inherently innocent. Ramsey’s performance is particularly great because, even though she’s stronger, her Ellie is still someone who needs protection, showing her emotional side more than Johnson’s. Ramsey’s Ellie is just different enough, standing out as a stronger character without losing the personality that makes the original character so brilliant. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance.
Easter eggs for fans
Not only is HBO’s The Last of Us well-written in the way it builds a believable post-apocalypse with fascinating characters and a dangerous world, but it does a great job of providing easter eggs for fans of the game.
It doesn’t smack you over the head with callbacks like the Uncharted movie does, instead doing it subtly in a way only fans would notice. The way Joel bends down to get stuff from his backpack, the fluttering of window drapes, cameos late on, and more will all see The Last of Us fans pointing at the screen in recognition.
Overall, I think the writers have done a great job of balancing The Last of Us between faithful adaptation and a show that shines in its own right. Not all of the changes or omissions work and it doesn’t use the infected as well as it could, but thanks to some wonderful performances and added context, The Last of Us tells a brilliant story that both newcomers and fans of the game will enjoy.
The Last of Us is exclusively available from 16th January on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW
All nine episodes of The Last of Us provided by HBO for review.