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‘The Last of Us,’ a Revolutionary Magnum Opus of Faithful Video Game Adaptation

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Editor’s Note: This review includes spoilers for “The Last of Us.”

Under the wings of Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin and original writer of the 2013 Playstation game Neil Druckmann, “The Last of Us” emerged under a new medium, bearing all the hallmarks of an exceptionally crafted video game adaptation. The highly renowned surrogate father-and-daughter story premiered as a weekly episodic HBO Max live-action series, first released on Jan 13. 

Following 20 years after the fungal outbreak of the cordyceps and the death of his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a weathered smuggler is tasked to protect and escort Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old orphan, across the country to the Fireflies, a revolutionary militia faction of doctors and freedom fighters. As they traverse westward through a desolate and barren post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by the “infected,” raiders and cannibals, their once turbulent relationship begins to take the form of a heartwarming bond between two broken survivors. When one is lost in the darkness, “The Last of Us” is a cautionary tale of grief, trust, love and family, and a reminder for those to endure and survive. 

Originally billed as a movie adaptation in 2016 that never saw the day of light, the project naturally fell into the hands of HBO Max as a live-action series and officially began production in 2021. With a budget exceeding $10 million dollars per episode, fans of the beloved video game anxiously anticipated how loyal the show’s writers would remain to its original source material. But due to its faithful adaptation along with a refreshing expansion of lore and storylines, the writers’ noticeable love for the game and keen eye to every detail lent it immunity from the formidable video game adaptation curse

“The Last of Us” has been retold before in various forms, with the remastered copy released in 2014 and the recent launch of the first game’s remake. However, the episodic format of the series pushes the bar even further and benefits with the advantage of tasteful foreshadowing in the series’ storytelling. New and pre-existing characters of the game, either friend or foe of our protagonists, have been thematically optimized and reimagined. Now, their interwoven narratives are more cohesive to the overarching story as they tie more and more weight to Joel and Ellie’s arcs.

Noticeably, the third episode takes the biggest risk with its canonical departure from the game’s storyline. However, its stylistic reimagination of two side characters effectively presents the series’ most poignant theme of trust in an unforgettable and tragically beautiful queer love story. To avoid the risk of rendering the show as just another television series with excessive gore and violence, the adaptation sacrifices the bloodshed of its predecessor in favor of substantial plot development and new chapters of intimate and emotional dialogue between characters. 

Each episode raises the stakes for our protagonists and their growing bond, juxtaposing the vulnerability it takes for one to learn how to care for another with the clashing strokes of mistrust bred by their own skepticism and vigilance. These themes are hammered home until the very final moments, concluding with a true crescendo of moral ambiguity that has trapped conflicted fans in a decade-long debate since the game’s first release. 

Furthermore, the actors who originally brought these beloved characters to life also make staggering guest appearances as different characters in the show, some more poetic and emblematic than others — Anna (Ashley Johnson), the mother of Ellie, is played by the same actress who infamously voiced and mocapped Ellie’s character in the first and second games.

From the show’s authentic script and subtle easter eggs to its bravely reworked narratives of side characters, the adaptation feels like a love letter to its fanbase and newcomers in every way, shape and form. 

The visual world-building of “The Last of Us” is undoubtedly a standout among other post-apocalyptic shows. Filmed in Alberta, Canada, the show’s intricate set design captures the looming shadows of grief and loneliness with the overgrown foliage dominating the metropolis. Still, it’s hard to deny the view of the raw beauty, even amidst all the chaos. Through ambient establishing shots, the cinematography often depicts the remnants of a society that once was. Amidst these shots, however, are beautiful glimpses of a nostalgic world — a frog hopping on old piano keys consumed by algae, moss seeping through the weathered fabrics of patio chairs and traffic lights and street signs tangled in vines. The element of realism is heightened to an all-time high with the show’s impressive marriage of practical effects, sound-mixing, costume design, grotesque prosthetic makeup and visually remarkable post-production VFX

Complementing the ambient melancholy of the story, the game’s original soundtrack composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, reprises his role in the live-action series. The quiet yet hauntingly beautiful guitar strings and moody keys reminiscent of the meditative tracks from the game enrich the moods of each episode. While some tracks have been reworked into different scenes, the impact of Santaolalla’s minimalistic tracks lavishly translates between both mediums. 

Despite their sparse appearances in the show, the “infected” are just as menacing and deadly on-screen. The adaptation tackles their limited spotlight with some fresh lore — the new inclusion of tendrils pose a bigger threat for survivors. Now, infected breeds can communicate through a neural network of fungal fibers, funneling a channel of signals that trigger rampant hordes to one’s exact location upon contact. Adapting the tendril imagery from mycology, the show places a strong emphasis on realism and finds new ways to keep its viewers on their toes. As the adaptation inches closer to realism, weaving together ideas of climate change and pathogenic fungi, the fear of the outbreak becoming an off-screen reality grows with each week’s episode. 

While shifting to a weekly-airing format comes with the inevitability of slight deviations from the game, the most poignant creative departure can be boiled down to the on-screen characterization of our beloved protagonists. Departing from Joel’s stoic and hardheaded demeanor in the game, Pascal’s characterization of Joel is a few years older than his video game counterpart and is more vulnerable to his lingering trauma and grief. But, he is also more sympathetic towards Ellie, not only punctuating his protective nature over her as a seasoned survivor and childless father, but also highlighting the stakes of Ellie’s waning innocence in a harrowing world. Consequently, their journey of adversity and tragedies set up a compelling conflict of interest — Joel softens as a human, but Ellie hardens as a survivor. 

At the forefront of a talented ensemble, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are the driving forces for this emotional father-and-daughter narrative to effectively translate on-screen. In the show, Pascal brings a more humane side of Joel that was never experienced by players in the game, and he powerfully showcases nuances of his character’s lifted demeanor. On the same level, Ramsey also delivers an immeasurable amount of talent and surpasses audience’s expectations as Ellie, subtly capturing both the innocence and violence of a teenage girl whose free will has been stripped by both the world her character inhabits and those around her. 

“The Last of Us” is a revolutionary masterpiece and game-changer in television history, pushing the envelope of storytelling and video game adaptations. By underscoring the rudiments of the friendships and relationships between characters, the live-action series presents a freshly elevated and supplemented depiction of Joel and Ellie’s story. After garnering 8.2 million views for the season finale and scoring an early renewal for a second season, the first premiered season of “The Last of Us” is everything fans and newcomers could have ever hoped for. 

“The Last of Us” is now streaming on HBO Max. 


Raymond Dinh is an Entertainment Staff Writer. He can be reached at raymontd@uci.edu.