In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explore how The Last of Us broke the video game curse.
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The Last of Us Is Great
HBO’s The Last of Us was one of the most highly anticipated shows of 2023, but many fans wondered whether the series’s creators would get it right. Would The Last of Us be the show to break the “video game adaptation curse”? To answer that question, we first must examine what makes video game adaptations “cursed” in the first place.
Historically, very few video game adaptations have gotten it right. Currently, the highest-rated video game movie on Rotten Tomatoes is Werewolves Within, an indie whodunnit inspired by Ubisoft’s multiplayer VR game, sitting at 86%. A mere five video game movies have a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
TV shows are a bit of a different story. Thanks to animated series, like Castlevania and Arcane: League of Legends that tend to be well-received by fans and critics, there are more “good” video game adaptations in a series format. Even Netflix‘s live-action The Witcher show has fared significantly better than most video game movies.
However, that begs the question… what makes video game adaptations so tricky? Many will tell you it is because the two mediums are entirely different. In a video game, you play an active role in the story, whereas in a movie, you sit back and watch passively as the story unfolds. Others will say that many filmmakers have trouble identifying the qualities that made the video game special in the first place.
One of the biggest issues with adapting video games into movies or TV shows is that some content will inevitably have to be cut during the adaptation. In the case of The Last of Us, the video game usually takes around 15 hours to complete — even more if you play it to 100% completion by finding all of the collectibles and listening to all of Ellie’s jokes — and the series is only nine episodes of around an hour each.
For the creators of a series like HBO’s The Last of Us, the challenge is finding a balance between adapting the games faithfully while still being unique enough to feel refreshing and fun for those who have played the games. And with such a devoted fanbase, players of The Last of Us know this story and world exceptionally well. If the adaptation messed it up, there would undeniably be millions of people upset.
The Last of Us is one of the most acclaimed video games of the century, having won several awards and sold millions of copies. Series creator Craig Mazin worked with the game creator, Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, to ensure that the show captured the “essence of the games.”
The main aspect of the series that really sets it apart is its world-building. Like the games, the TV show is set in post-apocalyptic America. However, this world needed to be differentiated from those of other popular zombie television shows like The Walking Dead. HBO threw millions of dollars at this show to ensure that this aspect was absolutely perfect, with the budget reportedly being even greater than HBO’s previous cash cow, Game of Thrones.
The world of The Last of Us feels so lived-in, from its different factions of survivors to the deserted landscapes of the once-bustling urban landscapes of America. The massive budget allowed the show’s filmmakers to go all-out with the production design and visual effects to ensure that viewers feel entirely transported into the world of the video games.
Of course, Mazin and Druckmann did not want to disappoint fans by delivering a show that felt generic, but audiences have some expectations of zombie shows that had to be fulfilled. The Last of Us games are unique because they are an unorthodox blend of horror, Western, and drama. The show doesn’t lean as heavily on the horror aspects, but it’s all the more enjoyable for it.
One big difference between the games and the show is that the timeline changes. The games opened in the then-present 2013 before jumping into the future of 2033. The show starts in the past in 2003 before coming to an alternate present-day 2023. Although this may seem like an insignificant shift, it represents that Mazin and Druckmann wanted to emphasize the groundedness of the series rather than making it feel futuristic.
That said, the series lifts some scenes directly from the video games. The Last of Us was always praised for its gorgeous visuals, and they gave the series a perfect template to work with. Many cutscenes are recreated shot-for-shot in live-action, which will be a treat for fans. The fact that the images can be directly adapted to the cinematic medium and be just as exciting also shows how effective the games are at creating suspense.
The biggest difference between the video game and television mediums is that television is not interactive. Combat turns into action scenes, and they must be done entirely differently, or they will not work. As such, the show’s creators had the challenge of shooting action that felt reminiscent of the gameplay while still feeling exciting despite the viewer not being directly involved.
In video games, repetitive combat can still be fun — but in adaptations, it can feel cumbersome watching similarly-shot action sequences again and again. This is where HBO’s The Last of Us cuts a lot of fluff. The show doesn’t focus much on the combat between our heroes and human survivors. Sections like Joel and Ellie’s escape from the Quarantine Zone or their visit to the University of Colorado are significantly shorter in the series than in the games.
Mazin and Druckmann widely realized that the main reason viewers would be watching this show is for zombie horror, and as such, they dive into the world of the Infected. Of course, care had to be taken to ensure that the creatures didn’t feel like generic zombies, and the execution of the various types of Infected in the show was perfect.
Throughout the show, we see the three main types of Infected: Runners, Clickers, and Bloaters. Although the Runners pretty closely resemble the kind of zombies we’d see in something like The Walking Dead, the creature design is augmented in the show to differentiate them. And, of course, the Clickers are just as menacing here as they were in the games. The show didn’t do much with the game’s Stalkers — presumably because there wasn’t an easy way to depict these on screen without resorting to gimmicky jump scares.
The other thing that this show does to make it one of the best video game adaptations is use this opportunity to explore more of the characters’ backstories. Everyone who has played the games falls in love with Joel and Ellie, but the depth of the player’s connection with the characters depends significantly on their play style. A player who took the time to scavenge and find every letter or listen to every one of Ellie’s jokes was likely to have a much more personal experience.
However, these aspects of the story are woven directly into the show. Rather than being an optional item that players must choose to interact with, these bits of dialogue are instead turned into actual plot points. As a result, the show manages to avoid one of the shortcomings of many video game adaptations: an over-reliance on goodwill from the series to create a connection.
The dynamic between Joel and Ellie was the emotional crux of the game, and Mazin and Druckmann have done an exceptional job of bringing that to the screen. It’s a relationship that evolves throughout the game, and the show does an outstanding job of showing that emotional growth. That being said, a great deal of the success of the show hinges on the chemistry between its actors.
Pedro Pascal might not have been the first choice to play Joel — Matthew McConaughey and Mahershala Ali supposedly both turned the role down — but after seeing the show, it’s hard to imagine anyone else embodying the character as perfectly as he did. Much like he does in The Mandalorian, Pascal brings a mysterious yet charming role to the character. And in the final few episodes, where he gets to show his sensitive side, he knocks it out of the park.
Additionally, since it took so long for the show to make it to the screen, several of the early choices for Ellie’s casting aged out of the role by the time the show entered production. However, the actress who ended up playing the character — Bella Ramsey — does an exceptional job. She manages to be rough and foul-mouthed while still being entirely likable, exactly the dichotomy of the character in the games.
However, some characters are substantially changed in the series. For example, the fan-favorite character Bill, an unlikely ally of Joel and Ellie’s in the game, is given a much deeper and more emotional storyline here. Much of Bill’s subplot is pulled from the letters that can be collected in the game, and events that were referenced but not directly shown. Still, Nick Offerman brought a ton of emotion to the role, so it works despite its differences.
For the most part, fans of the games should be pleased with the liberties taken in adapting this game to the screen. The show perfectly captures the essence of the storytelling that made it so beloved in the first place while fixing the things that don’t translate well into passive forms of entertainment.
There are also plenty of easter eggs weaved in that fans will pick up on without it feeling overly ploying. Keep an eye out for some comedic relief moments resulting from Ellie’s book of jokes. Some players that were hyper-focused on the game’s main storyline may have missed these bits, but they’re a refreshing source of brevity in the show.
Week after week, fans of the game and newcomers alike have tuned into The Last of Us to watch Joel and Ellie’s adventure through post-apocalyptic America. Hopefully, we will get to see these adventures continue in another season adapting The Last of Us Part II.
What do you think? Is HBO’s The Last of Us the best video game adaptation ever? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to like and subscribe!
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