Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in “The Last of Us.” (Photo courtesy HBO)

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in “The Last of Us.” (Photo courtesy HBO)

On the Screen: ‘The Last of Us’ perfectly adapts a masterpiece

HBO unquestionably knew they had a hit on their hands

There was a time when movies and shows based on video games were bad — notoriously so. Those times are long gone. Today, there’s a bounty of great adaptations, “Arcane,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and plenty more on the way. Increasingly, studios are looking to the interactive medium for the next big franchise hits.

When HBO announced that it was developing a series based on Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, it wasn’t a hard sell. The 2013 video game emulates exactly the kind of narrative and cinematic sensibilities found in the network’s prestige drama like “Game of Thrones.” The story is told through in-game cinematics — it, by design, tries to be a playable movie.

Original writer and director Neil Druckmann served in a creative role on the show, directing and writing episodes alongside partner Craig Mazin, who previously made HBO’s acclaimed “Chernobyl.”

HBO unquestionably knew they had a hit on their hands. Every single piece fell into place for the show to be something special.

They cast actor-of-the-moment Pedro Pascal and “Game of Thrones” standout Bella Ramsey as leads Joel and Ellie. They brought on original composer Gustavo Santaolalla. They beautifully — horrifically — realized the game’s twisted mushroom zombies.

From its first episode, “The Last of Us” made an impression. “The Last of Us” is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. It’s devastatingly emotional, especially in its standout third episode, buoyed by perfect portrayals across the board. It explores love, loss and violence, set to the backdrop of a unique — fungal — take on the zombie apocalypse.

The show has seen immediate success, reportedly HBO’s second largest debut since entering the streaming landscape. The premiere episode brought 4.7 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter, a count that only increased throughout the season to a finale this weekend that drew 8.2 million. A second season based on The Last of Us Part II has been announced, with Druckmann and Mazin openly discussing their plans for at least a third, saying Part II has more story than they can tell in just one more season.

The show follows Joel and Ellie, an unlikely pair — an older man who’s wallowed in two decades of grief and a 14-year-old who’s equal parts defiant and charming. They struggle together and ultimately build a bond, Joel protecting Ellie as he transports her across the country.

Pascal and Ramsey are both perfect in their roles, both developing their own versions of the familiar characters. Over nine episodes they develop from hostile strangers to surrogate father and daughter — a great emotional formula for the showrunners to capitalize on.

The United States — and the rest of the world — are in ruins following an apocalyptic fungal outbreak of cordyceps. Cordyceps are a real parasitic fungus known for infecting ants and piloting them around to consume and reproduce. In the series, climate change leads to the fungus mutating to impact humans — creating infected monsters with huge fungal growths coming from their bodies.

The infected are used for some cool set-pieces, but largely take a back seat throughout the series, where the biggest threat to Joel and Ellie is reliably the other people they encounter along the way. Entire episodes go by without characters encountering any monsters.

In the largely bleak apocalypse, relationships and love become the central themes of the series. In each episode Joel and Ellie come in contact with other relationships and are juxtaposed against them. This trend is bookended by Joel’s relationship with his own daughter, Sarah, in the first and Ellie’s with a long dead mother she never knew in the ninth.

The third episode is absolutely the show’s best — telling an impactful love story between two men in the apocalypse that was at best alluded to in the original game. Joel and Ellie are largely absent from the episode as Nick Offerman’s Bill and Murray Bartlett’s Frank are given the time and the oxygen to deliver one of the hardest-hitting hours of television I’ve ever seen.

Throughout, the show centers on the way relationships drive characters in their decision-making — of course coming to a head in the finale when Joel and Ellie have to make decisions of their own. That finale, like the game, is reliably divisive.

Some of the impact of that finale is lost when the viewer isn’t forced to engage and be a part of it as they are in the game — but it didn’t fail to get its point across.

That finale is the thesis statement of “The Last of Us,” the point it wants to make about love and connection and the way those emotions drive people to make decisions — regardless of whether or not they’re they right ones. Some big decisions are made through a lens of love.

HBO’s “The Last of Us” is a masterful adaptation of a video game long touted as one of the best narrative experiences in gaming. It’s easy to recommend on its own merits — though it is at times heavy, at times violent, and at times shockingly sad. It’s going to be a long wait for the second season, which, if it faithfully follows the game’s sequel, will also be heavy, violent and sad.

All nine episodes of “The Last of Us” are streaming on HBO Max.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at

Photo courtesy HBO 
Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in “The Last of Us.”

Photo courtesy HBO Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in “The Last of Us.”

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