The curse of the bad video game adaptation is already a thing of the past thanks to standout shows and movies like Arcane, Castlevania, and Werewolves Within. However, if you still have any lingering doubts about whether video games can make for excellent TV or film, look no further than HBO’s The Last of Us.
The new series is based on Naughty Dog’s 2013 game of the same name, which set a new, extremely high standard for survival games and was widely hailed as a masterpiece, as was its sequel. Making a TV show that lives up to the source material is always a high bar to clear, but especially so in this case. Luckily for gamers and new viewers alike, The Last of Us leaps over it with room to spare, chasing excellence with the boundless energy of a Clicker hunting its prey.
Co-creators Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (co-president of Naughty Dog and creator of The Last of Us) have delivered a sublime show that remains steadfastly true to the game while also taking advantage of the medium of television to build on key areas. What follows is an engrossing story of survival that plays out against a backdrop of a brutal, post-apocalyptic United States. It all comes together thanks to tremendous performances from Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, whose chemistry as beloved protagonists Joel and Ellie makes for the beating heart of this instant TV great. But be warned: You may just have your own heart torn in two by the end of the season.
How does The Last of Us show compare to the game?
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Like the game, The Last of Us drops us into a world ravaged by the Cordyceps fungus, which turns its human hosts into violent, zombie-like creatures of varying forms. Survivors either live in quarantine zones governed by the ruthless Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) or take their chances out in the wild.
Among these survivors is smuggler Joel (Pascal), who is tasked with bringing 14-year-old Ellie (Ramsey) across the country. Reluctance and snide remarks color their meeting and the first stages of their journey, but the farther they travel together through perilous circumstances, the more they come to trust and depend on one another. Yes, The Last of Us is a show teeming with big-budget effects and thrilling action set pieces, but like the game, it’s the scenes developing Joel and Ellie’s bond where the show truly shines.
It helps that the series has a clear respect for its source material — although would you expect anything less with Druckmann onboard? Significant chunks of dialogue are lifted word-for-word from the game, and these conversations still hit just as hard. The same goes for the show’s score, with game composer Gustavo Santaolalla adapting his magnificent, somber pieces for the TV series. You’ll also recognize some familiar faces: Joel and Ellie’s original voice and motion capture actors, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, appear in key roles in later episodes, and Merle Dandridge flawlessly reprises her role as rebel leader Marlene.
Some of the show’s most entertaining camerawork mimics the game-playing experience, staying close behind characters as they make their way through new environments — a common technique for video game adaptations, from Doom to Uncharted. The resulting effect calls to mind The Last of Us‘s third-person perspective between its cinematic cut scenes. Not only are these moments a fun nod to the game on a craft level, they also keep us fully immersed in Joel and Ellie’s constantly threatening world.
However, quite a few of The Last of Us‘s most effective moments are those that stray from the linear narrative of the game. A flashback to a scientist encountering the Infected at the very beginning of the outbreak evokes the same kind of existential dread Mazin harnessed in Chernobyl: We realize calamity is imminent, and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Elsewhere, we see the relationship between other survivors like Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) expanded beyond the representation hinted at in The Last of Us . Despite being almost completely new material, the Bill and Frank-centric episode promises to be one of the best of the year so far. (Yes, 2023 just began, but I’m already positive it will earn a place on my year-end list — it’s that good.) Heartwarming and devastating in equal amounts, it’s an incredibly smart adaptation choice. It both informs Joel and Ellie’s relationship moving forward and proves that teasing out a small detail dropped in source material can unlock something phenomenal.
The Last of Us delivers a gorgeous, horrifying apocalypse.
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
The Last of Us artfully combines science fiction and horror to cook up genuine scares. Every dark tunnel may be crawling with the Infected, every loud sound invites an ambush — a highly stressful key mechanic in the stealth-based game. Yet as harrowing as the show can get, it’s impossible to look away. That’s in large part due to its post-apocalyptic beauty, which is both captivating and alienating.
Each episode of The Last of Us presents new landscapes to sink our teeth into, allowing us to see how nature has reclaimed the world in the 20 years since the start of the outbreak. Dilapidated cityscapes crumble under new plant growth. Snow covers the emptiness of the Great Plains. A safe haven in a quaint, run-down town offers the fragile chance of a new start. Unfortunately for our blood pressure, these beautiful landscapes often mask a bevy of deadly threats ready to pounce on our heroes.
These threats include the real stars of the apocalypse: the Infected. You’ll find no bleeding wounds or rotting flesh on these zombie-esque creatures — this isn’t The Walking Dead. Instead, Cordyceps fungus erupts from their heads in bursts of mushroom-y body horror. This fungus remains a striking visual staple throughout The Last of Us, whether it’s blooming from a dead body or twining up concrete walls. There’s a strange push and pull between awe and queasiness whenever it’s on screen, and while queasiness often wins out, you certainly can’t be faulted for examining the fungus with morbid fascination.
However, this being The Last of Us, the truth we quickly come to discover is that the real monsters in this world are not the Infected, but rather the remaining humans. The Last of Us introduces us to FEDRA’s strict militaristic rule, raiders’ assaults on lone travelers, and worse. Here, the show reminds us time and time again, trust is a limited resource. And that’s why it’s so beautiful to see Joel and Ellie — two people well-acquainted with just how cruel life in this world can be — grow to trust and care for one another.
Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are Joel and Ellie.
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Pascal and Ramsey face an enormous amount of pressure stepping into the iconic roles of Joel and Ellie, but they more than do these treasured characters justice. Channeling Baker’s performance as a gruff loner, Pascal’s Joel keeps people at arm’s length, having suffered a great loss at the start of the outbreak. That loss remains present in everything: Pascal’s body language, how he looks at Ellie, the way he fights. Watching Pascal soften Joel around Ellie as The Last of Us goes on is truly one of the show’s most moving journeys. You may already be familiar with Pascal in “reluctant dad mode” from The Mandalorian, but everything he does as Joel still manages to feel new and compelling.
Then there’s Ramsey, so good in Game of Thrones and Catherine Called Birdy, and absolutely extraordinary here. Her performance, at once ferocious and foul-mouthed, playful and vulnerable, is reminiscent of Johnson’s in the best possible way. Yet Ramsey still manages to make the role her own in this new medium. Thanks to her, it’s not hard to believe that Ellie would just as soon attack you with her penknife as she would ambush you with a bad pun. Her most badass moments are treats to watch, but Ramsey’s skills truly stand out when Ellie experiences the world around her with childlike wonder. A trip through a flooded hotel becomes an opportunity for play; a journey to an abandoned mall with her friend Riley (Storm Reid, who is also excellent) leads to fun and self-discovery in an otherwise merciless world. Ramsey takes it all in with wide eyes and the occasional swear-laden quip. No matter how cynical you are (ahem, Joel), it’s impossible not to fall in love with her Ellie.
We may spend most of our time with Pascal and Ramsey, but The Last of Us‘s supporting players all deliver memorable turns as well. Nico Parker will break your heart as Joel’s daughter Sarah, and Anna Torv will instantly win you over as Joel’s smuggling partner Tess. Later episodes see great work from Melanie Lynskey, Offerman, Bartlett, and more.
With a cast of this caliber, as well as immaculate world-building and a story that will simultaneously hug you close and punch you in the gut, The Last of Us is a near-perfect show. Not only that, it’s absolutely the best video game adaptation to date. Hopefully game fans will continue to see adaptations at this level, but until then, I’m simply happy to follow Joel and Ellie wherever they go.
The Last of Us premieres Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes airing weekly.