Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have done the seemingly impossible: break the curse of video game adaptations and deliver a poignant and moving series in The Last of Us. Here’s our review. 

Harry Potter proved that a book series can be turned into a successful film franchise. Game of Thrones proved the same but this time for TV. The Lego Movie proved that for toys. Heck, we even get successful films based on Saturday Night Life sketches.

But video games seem to be a tough nut to crack. In fact, its adaptations are infamously considered cursed. It’s hit or miss, but definitely a lot more “miss”. We thankfully had the likes of the Sonic movies and Detective Pikachu, both of which did good or at the very least okay, but that’s about it. Super Mario might be good though that’s yet to be seen. Resident Evil? If Resident Evil was a video game adaptation, then I’m Ryan Reynolds. And please, for the love of Hideo Kojima, do not even utter the name Uwe Boll.

Neil Druckmann set a lofty goal for the TV adaptation of The Last of Us, set to premiere this January 16 on HBO GO. “Hopefully, this will put that video game curse to bed,” he said.

He was right. 

The Last of Us brings the game’s emotional and heart-wrenching journey alive for TV screens. 

Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie (Image credit: HBO)

The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by a virus. Typical? Not really. The virus originates from cordyceps, a genus of fungus—y’know, mushrooms. The explanation of how it works is eerily and terrifyingly plausible, a warm thought in this post-pandemic world.

In the middle of all this is Joel, played by the talented Pedro Pascal, a broken man who is still suffering from a heartbreak that occurred during “Outbreak Day”. Making his living as a smuggler, he crosses paths with a young girl named Ellie, played by the equally talented Bella Ramsey, and is tasked with bringing her across the country to a group of revolutionaries. Thinking she’s just the kid of someone powerful, he makes a shocking discovery: Ellie is immune, and she could hold the key to a cure. 

Those who have played the game already know how the whole thing goes, and yes, the show is definitely as emotional as its source material. The series sticks very closely to the game’s storyline and even adapts beat-for-beat moments that fans of the game will recognise. Whatever changes they did make only expanded the story but not so much that the plot feels too bloated. 

Nico Parker as Sarah and Pedro Pascal as Joel (Image credit: HBO)

A great example of this is the addition of Frank, played by White Lotus’ Murray Bartlett, who was already dead in the games. Frank and Bill’s storyline, with Nick Offerman playing Bill, gives the series a little more depth, though Druckmann has also said that there might be fans who will be upset about the episode dedicated to their story. Delving into their story gives the show a little room to breathe.

A story made for TV

That’s also what makes the medium of a TV series so well-suited for The Last of Us. A movie would have never done the story justice. Long-form storytelling was the only way audiences could really feel like they’d grown with Joel and Ellie in their journey and relationship, which is the focal point of the whole show. To that point, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are perfect for the roles of Joel and Ellie. They play off each other effortlessly and are able to portray their character’s warm earnestness and tragic trauma skilfully, sometimes even in the same breath. Haters will hate; and by the way, no, Bella Ramsey not playing the games wasn’t at all detrimental to her performance. 

Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie (Image credit: HBO)

The whole show really hangs on the performance and the writing of these two characters because really, everything else is secondary. Sure, there are zombies, but it’s about the emotional journey Joel and Ellie undertake. This isn’t a hack-and-slash, gun-and-run zombie TV series, and don’t expect a lot of gory stuff either (don’t worry, there’s still some violence; calm down, you bloodthirsty sadists). But this I think is also going to be what draws audiences who don’t know anything about the game or may not even be remotely interested in it. 

It’ll be interesting to see the reactions of audiences who know the game compared to those who don’t though. As someone who’s a fan of the game, I knew the turn of events and found myself bracing for the feels (I was unsuccessful). Would audiences who have no prior knowledge of the game feel the same gut-wrench and heartbreak? I’m betting on yes. 

Setting the bar

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Anna Torv as Tess (Image credit: HBO)

The accolade of “best video game adaptation” isn’t saying much thanks to their track record. But The Last of Us proves that not only can it be done right, but it can also be done beautifully. Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, the show’s creators, have achieved what seemed to be nigh impossible: adapt a game to the screen with emotional depth and an actual plot that resembles the game instead of just big action set pieces with subtle nods and winks to the original material while only bearing a passing resemblance to it. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, the original actors of Joel and Ellie from the games, do have roles in the series. They’re small roles but definitely not cameos, and it was a joy to see them on the screen.

There’s no question about it: The Last of Us sets the bar for video game adaptations going forward. Fans of the game will love it because this isn’t a hodge-podge of some of the things in the game with characters that kinda sorta are like the characters you were controlling on your PS4. This is the game come to life. Audiences who don’t know the game will fall in love—and have their hearts smashed like we gamers did when we first played TLOU—with Joel and Ellie and the journey they embark on. 

Pedro Pascal as Joel

I’m very hopeful for a Season 2, though as a fan, I already know what’s around the corner. I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for that yet, so it’s good that we’ll probably have a few years to recover before getting ourselves hurt again. 

This story first appeared in Lifestyle Asia Bangkok