How The Last of Us Lifted the Adaptation Curse

By Elika Kalami

The recent hit series, The Last of Us, has broken the previous arc of poorly-adapted video games into TV shows. From its pacing to structure to dialogue, the series adaptation of the famed action-adventure game has exceeded its fans’ expectations by a landslide. The writers masterfully incorporated key elements from the game while adding details and depth to the storyline. Centered around the violent nature of unconditional love, The Last of Us is one of today’s most captivating pieces of media. 

In the video game, players experience the post-apocalyptic world through the perspective of Joel, a detached smuggler who must transport a teenage girl, Ellie, through an American landscape brimming with infected people, corrupted social groups, and dangerous, scarred humans. Players navigate through various dilapidated buildings and snow-riddled resorts while they collect the resources necessary to create weapons and ensure Ellie’s safety. To the millions of fans of The Last of Us, playing the game through a first-person perspective created a personal connection with the story and characters. As Joel, they’ve wandered around and looted the neverending suburban homes. They traveled through various states as they chose which routes to take and what techniques to use. They’ve engaged with Sarah and Tess, thus intensifying their reactions to their ill-fated endings. Players poured themselves into the story as they aimed for survival and success.  

Hence, when the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, collaborated with Craig Mazin to adapt the game into an HBO series, many speculated that the game’s complexity and nostalgic story would be poorly represented. Historically, video game adaptations have resulted in projects that feel inauthentic and confusing to both gaming and non-gaming viewers. Fans of The Last of Us feared their beloved game would meet the same fate. 

Be that as it may, an overwhelming majority of viewers were presently surprised when they saw the new approach Mazin took to The Last of Us, as he shifted the focus from action-filled scenes to the crucial relationship between Joel and Ellie. Instead of incorporating various shooting sequences that were sure to bore the viewers, Mazin uses violence only when necessary to allow for more fixation on character relationships. For instance, in the heart-wrenching third episode of The Last of Us, viewers are introduced to Bill and Frank, two beloved characters derived directly from the video game. However, unlike the game, the show creates a storyline that dives deep into the background of the two. While the game implied a romantic relationship between Bill and Frank, the adaptation took it further to create an entire episode outlining their love and history with each other. Breathtakingly, Mazin and the remainder of the show’s creators created one of the most memorable and heart-wrenching love stories in television history, all without deviating far from the original plot. Bill and Frank’s relationship was already alluded to in the game; the series adaptation only added more sentiment and detail to achieve the show’s purpose better. As weekly episodes of The Last of Us air, the series’ focus becomes clearer — this is not a show about monsters, but rather, it’s a show about raw, vulnerable relationships. By turning action scenes into drama, focusing on various characters, and highlighting the central relationship between Joel and Ellie, the television adaptation of The Last of Us expertly broke the video game curse. The game is incredibly unique on its own: its cinematic aspects establish an emotional emphasis that heightens attraction to the gameplay. Nevertheless, the show’s intentions are clear — it is a video game adaptation that stands alone great as a live-action show, one sure to appeal to dubious gamers and new fans looking for a Sunday-night fix. All things considered, Mazin and Druckmann’s The Last of Us successfully expands on its source material while diving deeper into the story’s emotional core.