“The Last of Us” is considered one of the best video games in recent memory, if not of all time. Created by Naughty Dog and released for the Sony PlayStation in 2013, the action-adventure-horror game became a massive hit both commercially and critically — it won Game of the Year over 200 times, a record only beaten by its sequel, “The Last of Us II.”
This is why game fans have been cautiously optimistic about HBO’s “The Last of Us” live-action adaptation. And for good reason — video game adaptations rarely go well. (See: Paramount+’s recent adaptation of “HALO” and Netflix’s unsuccessful attempt at a teen adaptation of “Resident Evil,” not to mention almost every movie based on a video game ever made).
So what sets this adaptation apart?
Creator and Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann is thankfully heavily involved in HBO’s “The Last of Us,” serving as co-creator, co-showrunner and executive producer of the series alongside Craig Mazin (“Chernobyl”), and together the team has done an excellent job of sticking close to the source material while also breathing life into new characters along the way, creating an engaging and refreshing rendering of a popular genre story.
HBO’s “The Last of Us” begins in 1968 with an Oppenheimer-style interview with an epidemiologist studying mycology. In terrifying detail, the scientist outlines a doomsday scenario in which a rampant fungal infection could threaten human extinction if the conditions were right (the conditions being, well, a rise in global temperature). This bit of info comes in handy 35 years later when the world is overrun by the “infected.”
Unlike most zombie scenarios where a chemical or biological agent revives the dead, “The Last of Us” victims aren’t dead but effectively hosts infected with a real-life parasitic fungus called Cordyceps. A fungus takes over its host and marionettes it, slowly taking over from within, and the Cordyceps have a hive mind that protects and communicates through vines in the earth itself.
In 2003, we meet Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), and Joel’s wayward brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) when the outbreak first hits. Although the early aughts had cell phones, there was no social media in 2003, so before Joel and his family can figure out why people are attacking each other, tragedy strikes.
Two decades after that, Joel and survivor Tess (Anna Torv) live in a Quarantine Zone (QZ), burning the dead by day and smuggling everything from contraband to people by night to survive. The QZ are militarized zones set up by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), which have become corrupt after 20 years of replacing the U.S. Government since the outbreak. Of course, not everyone agrees with FEDRA’s corrupt (and brutal) Gestapo tactics, and a resistance movement known as the “Fireflies” works underground to overthrow them.
Joel’s world changes again when an old Firefly friend asks him to sneak a mysterious, rambunctious pre-teen named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) beyond the wall of the QZ. He reluctantly takes them up on the offer, partly to secure payment and supplies but also because it provides another way to search for Tommy. Those familiar with the game will know why Ellie is so special, but her true purpose isn’t immediately revealed to the audience or Joel.
All of this happens in the feature-length pilot episode, written by Mazin and Druckmann and directed by Mazin.
Pascal is phenomenal as Joel, slowly thawing after decades of unresolved grief, loss and trauma. Ramsey is even more impressive than she was in “Game of Thrones,” expressing more emotion through a side-eye than most actors twice her age. As the season progresses, so does the paternal bond between Joel and Ellie. It’s beautiful to witness Pascal navigate fatherhood, this time without a helmet.
Every episode, we meet new characters who spin in and out of Joel and Ellie’s orbit as they cross the country. Some help, some harm, but all provide context to the tapestry of “The Last of Us” universe while painting a rich backdrop of life after an extinction-level event.
Episode 3, featuring Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett (“The White Lotus”) as Bill and Frank, respectively, is a prime example of this. Though the episode only briefly features Joel and Ellie, stellar writing and performances make it one of the best of the season. Other notable performances by Storm Reid (Riley), Melanie Lynskey (Kathleen), and a brief appearance by Rutina Wesley (Maria Miller) are all highlights of the season as well.
“The Last of Us” narrative utilizes a monster-of-the-week style, which would seem predictable if more monsters were in it. Although Cordyceps beasts known to fans of the game all make appearances, it’s actually humans that provide the most significant threats in the show.
Under Druckmann and Mazin’s tutelage, the nine-episode season boasts exemplary storytelling, even for those unfamiliar with the source material. And game fans will enjoy several scenes that look to be lifted straight from the game, as well as appearances by original game actors Ashley Johnson (Ellie), Troy Baker (Joel), and Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy) in the cast as different characters.
If there is a flaw in “The Last of Us,” it would be in the pacing. Although gamers might appreciate the methodical pace of most of the nine-episode season, it does lag in spots. This is a human drama first and foremost, so while zombie action does occur, it’s far from the priority.
For the most part, “The Last of Us” gets its adaptation right by simply sticking to the source material. The storyline meanders a bit, but Season 1 eventually ends up in a place fans of the game will find familiar. Ramsey is perfect for this role, so if the show does get renewed, we’d love to see her tackle the storyline of “The Last of Us II.”
“The Last of Us” premieres on HBO and is streaming on HBO Max Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. ET, with new episodes airing weekly.