HBO’s “The Last Of Us” Looks to Become a Truly Great Video Game Adaptation
There’s a solid argument to be made that one of the most intriguing new series coming out in 2023 is based on a video game. Putting aside the wobbly track record that video game adaptations have had across film and television, in this instance, there’s a very good reason for hope. The creators behind HBO’s The Last Of Us have gone to great lengths to break the curse of video game adaptations by both leaning into the source material and drowning out the noise about how these adaptations have proven so difficult in the past. It helps that the series was co-created by Chernobyl‘s Craig Mazin, one of the most gripping limited series of the past few years. It’s equally important than his co-creator is Neil Druckmann, the co-president of video game developer Naughty Dog and the creator of the original game, a critical and commercial smash hit.
A big, must-read profile in The Hollywood Reporter about the series opens with Mazin recounting how, during a The Last Of Us press junket, every single reporter asked him the same question—”what are the challenges of adapting a video game?”
Knowing he was going to get the question and having considered it himself a million times before he set off to adapt Druckmann’s video game, Mazin had an answer ready; “The way to break the video game curse is to adapt the best video game story ever — not by a little, but by a lot,” Mazin told THR. “So I flat-out cheated.”
As in the video game, HBO’s The Last Of Us is set 20 years after the fall of modern civilization and tracks the journey of Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardscrabble survivor whose job is to smuggle cargo across a nightmarish post-fall United States filled with zombies. The cargo has a name—Bella (Bella Ramsey)—and their journey will serve as the thrust of season one.
Druckmann had his initial idea for The Last Of Us way back in 2004, when he was a student at Carnegie Mellon and was assigned the task of pitching a zombie story for a computer class that was going to be judged by none other than George Romero, the man behind the legendary Night of the Living Dead. Druckmann’s idea, inspired by the PlayStation game “Ico” and the tough-as-nails character John Hartigan from Frank Miller’s iconic “Sin City,” was the story of a father who lost his daughter and a daughter who lost her father teaming up in a postapocalyptic America. Romero didn’t like it.
Yet eventually, after rising in the ranks at Naughty Dog, Druckmann got to re-create his vision in the video game, which was inspired not just by zombie horror classics but also films like Alfonso Cuarón’s nearly flawless Children of Men.
“We wanted to do the opposite of Resident Evil — which I love, but it’s so over-the-top, and you’re fighting giant spiders, and it’s all about enemy variety,” Druckmann told THR. “What if it’s about intimate relationships — an exploration of the unconditional love a parent feels for their child and the beautiful things that could come out of that and the really horrible things that could come out of that?”
Although many video game experts said the game would never sell (the lead female character wasn’t “sexy,” there weren’t enough boss-level fights, and there weren’t enough weapons), it became an instant best-seller and one of the best-reviewed games in years. Druckmann began developing a feature film with director Sam Raimi, but he struggled to find a way to turn 15 hours’ worth of game narrative into a movie.
When the film never came to fruition, the rights returned to Naughty Dog, which Druckmann was co-president of at the time. Then he saw Mazin’s Chernobyl on HBO.
Chernobyl and The Last of Us have one key similarity; they passionately evoke a world buckling after a disaster, and they deal with the nightmare at the level of human relationships. Once Mazin and Druckmann got HBO’s buy-in, they began the tough process of casting a series from a game with rabid fans. There were quibbles online (when are there not quibbles online?) about the casting of Pascal and Ramsey, but nothing surprising, and by the time filming got underway (they shot in Canada, at one point, it was minus 20 degrees on the set in Calgary), the only concern was delivering on the ambitions Mazin and Druckmann had for their adaptation.
The series will hew closely to the game’s source material until it doesn’t, but will ultimately remain faithful to the game. In fact, much of the game’s dialogue remains intact in the series, and many of the settings were recreated with a precision that should delight hardcore fans of the game.
“People see bad adaptations, and it adds credence to the idea that games are childish,” Druckmann told THR about video game adaptations. “I love the idea that someone could watch this and be moved by it and then be like, ‘Wait, that’s based on the video game?’”
“I don’t want to see the story done poorly any more than [the game’s fans] do,” Mazin said. “Give us the chance, I think they will be just as rewarded — in a different way, but just as rewarded.”
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Featured image: Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey. Photo courtesy HBO.