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Did HBO Nail the Adaptation of The Last of Us?

The Last of Us Cover

The Last of Us is one of the most acclaimed video games of the century — from fans and critics alike — so many were understandably worried about the quality of the adaptation. After all, video game adaptations aren’t exactly known for being the most consistent in quality. However, with Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin at the helm and substantial guidance from Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, many hoped the HBO series would capture the games’ essence. Was that hope misplaced?

Warning: this article contains vague spoilers for the HBO series The Last of Us, but does not spoil any specific plot points.

One of the biggest challenges the creators of the series faced was staying faithful to the games while still having enough surprises to keep the show fresh for devotees. Of course, it’s difficult to directly adapt a video game into the cinematic medium due to the loss of interactivity. Still, the creative team behind HBO’s The Last of Us has managed to recreate the experience shockingly well.

Many fans love The Last of Us games because of their expansive and gritty storytelling, giving it a leg up in terms of a cinematic adaptation. Because of the gorgeous visuals of the games, the series creators had a lot to work with in terms of visual inspirations — even directly remaking some of the game’s sequences (predominantly cutscenes) in live action.

Also Read: The Last of Us Review – An Expert Level Video Game Adaptation

Anna Torv and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us.
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO, The Last of Us

However, this also goes a long way in creating the most pivotal aspect of this show’s success: world-building. What sets The Last of Us apart from other zombie-centric series on television is how rich it is in detail. And with a budget that is reportedly even greater than Game of Thrones, this was poised to be the network’s biggest and most spectacular property yet — and they deliver.

Fans of the games will recall several different types of Infected in the games, and the series focuses on three main types: Runners, Clickers, and Bloaters. Time will tell if the (presumed) second season will introduce more stages of infection — some of them are exclusive to The Last of Us Part II, and there are no Stalkers to be found in this season. But, for the forms of Infected we did get to see, the show does a great job with the visual effects and sound design.

Another big difference between the games and the show is that the show gives us more time to develop the characters. Of course, a big part of why fans fell in love with the games is how endearing the characters are, and Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey do a fantastic job of bringing those characters to life. 

However, in the games, the depth a player gets with the character is largely determined by how much time they spend on side missions and finding collectibles. For those who played to 100% completion, they’ll have found letters and other features that add a bit more background and depth. Those elements are directly written into the show, making it feel even more intimate than the games.

Also Read: 5 Apocalyptic Films and TV Shows to Prepare You for ‘The Last of Us’

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in HBO's The Last of Us
Photograph Courtesy of HBO, The Last of Us

The one significant change in the show that may divide fans is a complete shift in the treatment of the character Bill. In the games, Bill was an unlikely ally to our heroes, Joel and Ellie, and his personality turned him into a fan-favorite character. Although that personality is still present in Nick Offerman’s performance, his storyline is entirely different. For many, it will be effective, as it’s a wonderfully emotional subplot. Others may be frustrated by the liberties taken from the source material.

Additionally, since the game offers about 15 hours worth of gameplay and the series is only about 9 hours, there naturally had to be some beats cut from the show. Some of the most noticeable cuts are significant portions of sneaking Ellie out of the QZ and the University chapter. It seems that the show’s creators shied away from repetitive combat against human survivors, which, while fun and essential in the games, wouldn’t have served the story much in the adaptation.

All in all, HBO’s The Last of Us is an extremely strong adaptation — perhaps even the best video game adaptation of all time. It’s clear that the significant level of creative involvement from game creator Neil Druckmann went a long way in creating a show that feels entirely true to the games yet is unique enough to stand on its own as a piece of fantastic media.

The Last of Us debuts on HBO and HBO Max on January 15 at 9pm ET/PT.

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Written by Sean Boelman

Film Critic and member of the CACF.