The Last of Us on HBO is not only one of the first contenders for Best New TV Show of 2023, but also a landmark achievement in adapting a video game to a new medium. For decades, popular games have struggled to make it to the TV screen, but The Last of Us has taken the seismic leap with amazing grace.
I was lucky to see the first four episodes of The Last of Us and repeat the almost universally positive reviews. (will open in a new tab) (including our brilliant review of The Last of Us). Executive producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann managed to create a TV show that feels essential to players of the original game, but also serves as the perfect way for the non-player to experience Joel and Ellie’s emotionally devastating story. This achievement deserves applause and perhaps a couple of Golden Globes this time next year.
With a 98% star rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last of Us is much more than just a TV show that sits alongside other prestigious HBO titles like House of the Dragon and Legacy. This is a blueprint for how to adapt a video game for television. After countless beloved properties have been destroyed in the name of finding a new audience, it’s almost indescribably good to see The Last of Us being treated with the respect it deserves.
A quick note: before I tell you why you should definitely watch The Last of Us on HBO, there are no spoilers in this article. I will be speaking in general terms about some aspects of the show, but everything discussed here has already been announced in the official marketing materials.
A story worth telling
Based on its first four episodes, as well as comments from a few friends who have seen the entire series, The Last of Us is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the source material. It may not come as a surprise to have the game’s co-director, Druckmann, so heavily involved, but it’s still worth a look in the TV landscape that recently gave us Netflix’s take on Resident Evil.
(Image credit: HBO)
While Netflix’s spin on the cult survival horror franchise treated the game’s cannon as something to be neglected, only fit for a pair of winking Easter eggs, The Last of Us will feel very familiar if you’ve played the original game. And, in a way, if you’ve never played the game, last year’s PS5 remake, The Last of Us Part I, is the perfect excuse to fix that.
Sticking to the original source was a very wise decision. After all, The Last of Us’ reputation for having one of the best stories in gaming is well deserved. I’ve replayed the game half a dozen times, and each time I find myself captivated by both its dramatic intensity and its grandiose emotional payoff. And those moments in the game where tears formed in the corners of my eyes had the same impact when they were brought into the realm of live television.
(Image credit: Lian Hencher/HBO)
Of course, a huge part of the show’s success is the flawless casting of Pedro Pascal as gruff survivor Joel and Bella Ramsey as precocious teen Ellie. The central duo bounce off each other with great chemistry.
I admit that I wasn’t completely sure about Ramsey’s selection when it was announced. However, after the first episode, I already ate my words. What’s even more impressive, from what I’ve seen so far, Ramsey is getting more and more into the role with every episode.
Going beyond the game
This is not to say that The Last of Us is a frame-by-frame remake of a video game, but there are changes. In essence, the third episode turns a small story from a game into an entire episode, and in a completely different direction than in the original game. I expect this decision to be controversial for absolute purists, but many critics have already declared this the best episode of the entire first season – and I can’t argue.
While there are differences between the game and the show, it’s clear that Mazin and Druckmann were very careful when making the changes. For example, the timeline is set back a decade, starting in 2003 instead of 2013, but this change was made to make the show feel more down to earth. The story later jumps forward two decades, bringing the bulk of the show to 2023 instead of 2034. It’s a small change, but it’s clearly well thought out and, most importantly, doesn’t disrespect the source material.
(Image credit: HBO via YouTube)
The TV show also reveals characters who only made brief appearances in the video game, or creates new characters to fill in some of the gaps. In the video game, the nameless foot soldiers you fight don’t need a backstory. But on the TV show, they’re absolutely right, and The Last of Us wisely decided to make what was just a group of ruthless bandits in a video game, 3D characters instead. This is definitely a change that I can get behind.
Events prior to the Cordyceps outbreak are also extended, especially in the first episode. We can spend extra time with a key character and see more of Joel’s family life before society goes to hell. This expansion of the story only serves to make The Last of Us’ emotional moment even more impressive.
(Image credit: Lian Hencher/HBO)
These extra moments and new characters help make the video game better in many ways. We no longer wonder about some aspects that are hushed up in the name of keeping the player in combat encounters. The motivations of both large and small characters are especially fleshed out in this adaptation.
When I get to my next playthrough of The Last of Us – which will be very soon – it’s likely that my experience will be enhanced by watching the TV adaptation. The game world actually feels richer and more fulfilling thanks to the addition of fresh material to the show. Which cannot be said about many other video game shows or movies.
The Last of Us is a must see
In terms of successful video game adaptations, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners comes closest to me. However, The Last of Us simply outdoes it due to its stronger emotional pull. I’ve also heard good things about Arcane, but I can’t speak to its quality as an adaptation since I don’t play League of Legends.
Of course, it’s undeniable that the list of video games that have been successfully adapted for TV shows is rather small. The competition for a place in the ranking is hardly fierce. But The Last of Us serves as a blueprint for future attempts to follow.
HBO’s The Last of Us combines all the good things about the original video game with the network’s prestigious trademark production values. It’s an almost unbeatable combination and I can’t wait to see how the series develops over the remainder of its nine episodes.
Today’s Best HBO Max Deals