The best video game adaptation: ‘The Last of Us’



Original North American poster of “The Last of Us” produced in 2023.

On Jan. 15, 2023, HBO Max aired the first episode of their adaptation of the 2013 video game, “The Last of Us.” It has become a massive success, achieving HBO’s second biggest debut since 2010, behind only “House of the Dragon” with 4.7 million viewers. The TV series is created by screenwriter Craig Mazin and “The Last of Us” co-creator Neil Druckmann.

Developed by Naughty Dog, the first game takes place in the year 2033, 20 years after the first Cordyceps, a parasitic fungal infection, outbreak in 2013. However, the prologue was instead moved back to 2003, so the story is now set in present time.

The series still follows Joel Miller, played by Pedro Pascal, as the protagonist who is forced to escort the immune teenager Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, across a post-outbreak world.

“The Last of Us” series is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original game. It does not retell the same story exactly, but it is very close. It stays true to the source material while having its own specific twist on the lore. The show has captured what made the original game series so special. It conveyed the emotion, intensity and the significance of each character’s decisions. It looks and feels like the game, but also has its own specific flair. It is an extremely well-made first episode and felt like a perfect fit for the story. It is one of the best live-action video game adaptations viewers have seen. More video games should take note of what a good adaptation looks like and how the involvement of creators of the games can elevate it to a new level.

While I was hesitant when the show was first announced, I am now very impressed. The cast and crew put a lot of thought and care into it. The writers and producers did such an excellent job of adding layers to the story with only minor changes in order to surprise fans of the game and make the narrative function better in live-action. Unlike other adaptations, the series does not hinder itself for viewers who have not played the game. I enjoyed how much the characters sounded like the game’s characters. Anna Torv sounds a lot like Tess and Gabriel Luna sounds just like Tommy. It was fantastic to watch these characters come to life. Some scenes felt like I was playing the game for the first time again.

The episode begins with a talk show from 1968. While this is not in the game, it helps to ground the show and builds on the universe in a new way. A scientist, played by John Hannah, sets the scene nicely by discussing the concept of a pandemic and how bad it can be for humanity. The scientist explains that the Cordyceps fungi has the ability to control its host’s mind and body to create basically zombies, but if the world starts to warm up, it gives the fungi the ability to live in its habitat for years. This whole scene serves to instill the whole situation of the entire outbreak that players see in “The Last of Us.” While it also brings tension and foreshadows the events of “The Last of Us,” it also really makes viewers think that an outbreak like this could actually happen. This scene is especially frightening knowing that the fungal mutation Cordyceps is real and served as inspiration for “The Last of Us” game. It can be found around the world, but it specializes on insects and is unlikely to cause brain infections for humans. “The Last of Us” feels like it is scientifically the most accurate depiction of what an apocalypse could look like for mankind especially in today’s environment, with global warming and the coronavirus. It feels like it is not outside a real possibility.

Pascal’s performance is phenomenal. He embodies a Joel who is tired and worn down by age, and constantly struggling to survive. He has grown accustomed to the harsh environments of what it takes to survive in the post apocalyptic world. He has not found a way to find peace in this brutal world, turning to harmful substances to cope. He feels guilt over not saving his daughter and Pascal effectively conveys that. Pascal depicts the bleak reality of losing a child in a tragic event. I cannot wait to see more of him throughout the season.

Nico Parker did an amazing job as Sarah. Her performance is heartbreaking and deserves more praise. Parker is given a character who has very little screen time in the games but is one of the most important characters, and she delivered. Parker brought depth and emotional range to Sarah. Viewers spend more time with her character, which makes the impact of her death more tragic and raw. I appreciated how viewers got the chance to see how much Sarah meant to Joel. Even if viewers know her fate, her death still makes them bawl like a baby. In this moment, she perfectly recreated the game. Sarah’s death is a huge part of Joel’s character growth in the game, and I can not wait to see that translated in live action.

The practical effects contribute significantly to the immersion, making the horror scenes more intense. The TV series brought the horrifying monsters to life, giving me nightmares. Watching the infected scenes feels horribly disempowering since I could not take them down or run away from them, heightening the tension and horror. I was skeptical about the changing of how the infection spreads from spores to fungus. Spores are one of the most unique aspects of “The Last of Us” universe, but the series still finds a way to logically advance the overall story.

The Cordycep has taken over the whole world, destroying it and leaving it in ruins. The TV show captures the game’s harsh, damaged beauty of the game as well as its tone. The atmosphere is haunting and eerie. Visually, it is tense and gloomy, with crumbling skyscrapers and intruding greenery.

The future for “The Last of Us” show looks bright, being greatly received by critics and fans alike. If it continues this way, it will certainly be the show of the year. I am looking forward to seeing how the season plays out. This is the adaptation that gaming lovers have been waiting for. ★★★★★