“The Last of Us” Breaks the Curse of the Video Game Adaptation

HBO Max’s latest iteration of the hugely popular video game series paves a bold path for the medium.

By Yasmine Abdeldayem

Photo Credit: HBO

Bella Ramsay and Pedro Pascal take on the iconic roles of Ellie and Joel, ten years after the characters’ inception.

In an age where adaptations wreak havoc on the hearts of video game fans, “The Last of Us” triumphantly rises in the ashes.

And it’s no small feat. HBO Max’s series adaptation of “The Last of Us”, Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed 2013 video game, had a tough act to follow—and a dedicated fanbase to satiate. 

Set twenty years into an apocalypse triggered by an international cordyceps infection, The Last of Us follows fifty-six-year-old Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and fourteen-year-old Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsay) on a cross-country journey that could end with a cure for mankind’s zombie affliction.

Since the series premiere on January 15, viewership has consecutively increased every week. According to Forbes, approximately 7.5 million viewers tuned in to episode 4, “Please Hold My Hand”, which aired on February 5.

Such significant leaps in viewership per episode is practically unheard of in HBO’s long list of culturally impactful series, some of which notably include “Game of Thrones”, “White Lotus”, and “Euphoria.”

Though the finale doesn’t air until March 12, fans are already highlighting “The Last of Us” with a title long believed to be an oxymoron: the perfect video game adaptation.

“The Last of Us” writers/executive producers, Neil Druckmann, (who originally wrote the story for the game), and Craig Mazin took on the weighty challenge of balancing a passionate, pre-existing fanbase with the new viewers sure to come. Here’s where prior adaptations have shuddered under the dual burden, letting grounding themes, crucial plot points and faithful characterization tumble into an abyss.

Rather than upend a story that has repeatedly proven its abilities to strike into the hearts of many, “The Last of Us” dedicates its lengthy episodes to filling in blanks and expanding their post-apocalyptic world to make it worthy of the characters that linger within.

No longer shackled by a duty to incorporate gameplay tutorials and exhilarating combat scenarios at regular intervals, the story shines stark light on corners of the world that were equally crumpled by the infection—and on characters that were once just a fleeting chapter in Joel and Ellie’s journey.

Joel’s daughter, Sarah, (Nico Parker) walks us through the prologue of episode 1: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.” Chaos is right around the corner, but her reinvigorated presence enraptures former players and intensifies the fear of her tragic fate.

In episode 3, titled “Long, Long Time”, a video game’s survival-based quest to find an operable car in a zombie-ridden Lincoln becomes one of the most heart wrenching tales of love persevering through humanity’s darkest period.

Bill, the game’s hardcore survivalist that sacrificed companionship for security, is given a tearful ending that suits Nick Offerman’s nuanced depiction of the character and stays true to the nature of a lost, desolate world. His partner, Frank (Murray Bartlett), is more than a faceless body and crumpled letter.

With such a striking cast justifiably taking on the iconic roles formerly filled by actors such as Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, the show’s most memorable moments hit just as deeply, and the new ones resonate as impactfully as the infected’s sprawling hive mind.

The success of “The Last of Us” can be credited to more than its occasional word-for-word incorporation of iconic lines from the game and the revival of Ellie’s joke book (though we all enjoy eagerly pointing at our screens and declaring, “they took that from the game!”).

It shatters the curse of the adaptation because it understands that loyalty is more than mimicry.

Loyalty is being gifted with a new medium to tell a decade-old story and immediately asking which areas deserve nourishment, before wondering what to hack away for the sake of immediate, screen-friendly entertainment. It’s daring to sideline Joel and Ellie for an episode to elevate the world that brought them together in the first place.

After “The Last of Us” has garnered such positive responses from review outlets and long-time fans, “adaptation” no longer seems to be such a dirty word in the gaming world.

As fans marvel at the show’s deft handling of the game’s beloved characters, questions are already being raised about future adaptations of iconic franchises—namely “Red Dead Redemption” and “God of War” (which is slated for its own series on Amazon Prime).  

“The Last of Us” premieres every Sunday at 9:00 PM EST on HBO and HBO Max.

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