How the Last of Us HBO Series Elevates the Games Iconic Story

Image via HBO

Finally, a great video game adaptation!

HBO’s The Last of Us is a phenomenal adaptation that successfully transforms the beloved and iconic franchise to a new medium that completely elevates the story. The subtle changes don’t affect the narrative as a whole but add necessary context and depth to the characters and their progression that work for television. It was very important for the game’s creator Neil Druckmann who is also a showrunner, to stay true to the games overlying themes and characters while also connecting it to the real world. 

The Last of the Us is one of the most acclaimed titles – a generation-defining game that has garnered dozens of awards and nominations in a variety of categories including praise for its sound and music, artistic design, outstanding acting and captivating story. The Last of Us has won Game of the Year, Best Design and Best Narrative, so it was only a matter of time before it was picked up for television. A decade later one of the best–selling Playstation games of all time became one of the most-watched television series ending with 8.2 million viewers for its finale, breaking its own viewership record.  

TLOU TV series developed by the game’s creator and Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann, alongside Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin brought the “best video game story ever told” to the screen. They successfully expanded upon the game with its treatment of the live-action adaptation by not only honoring the source material but also keeping it new and exciting, surprising gamers as well with some necessary adjustments. You can tell they really cared about honoring the game with incorporating voice actors and even the original music composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

The post-apocalyptic zombie thriller stars Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) as Joel, and Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) as Ellie, as the pair are forced to endure brutal circumstances and ruthless killers across a post-outbreak America. Twenty years after a fungal pandemic transforms people into zombie-like creatures ravages the planet, survivors Joel and Tess are tasked with a mission to protect the 14-year old girl who may be humanity’s last hope. The series also stars Gabriel Luna as Joel’s younger brother and former soldier, Tommy; Merle Dandridge (The Last of Us video games) as resistance leader Marlene; and Anna Torv (Fringe) as Tess, a smuggler and fellow hardened survivor.

Image via HBO

What separates The Last of Us from most zombie survival stories is its centering on human relationships and interactions amongst the ramifications of a world-turned completely upside down instead of focusing on gore, and dramatic prolonged warfare with the undead. The beauty of the show is the fact that you don’t need to play the game to understand it. Although the series is very accurate in terms of the games timeline there are some key differences that help elevate the story to newer audiences. The series did a phenomenal job of making you care about all of the characters including impactful additions to the storylines of characters such as Bill, Sam and Marlene. 

So What Changed?

For one, the show is actually set in 2023 with the outbreak occurring in 2003, unlike the game in which the current timeline is 2033 with a 2013 outbreak. Due to the fact the game took place the year it came out, Mazin and Druckmann agreed that the chronological repositioning made more sense because it didn’t fundamentally change the story.

“If I’m watching a show in the year 2023 and it takes place in 2043, it’s just a little less real. I thought it might be interesting to just say, ‘Hey, look, in this parallel universe, this is happening right now.’ So it was really just about helping people connect a little bit more,” Mazin said in an interview with CNET.

The show delves a little more into Joel’s backstory also giving us more screen-time with his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker). The first episode gives us a glimpse of their father-daughter relationship with scenes that are unique to the show. The video games beginning cutscene is only about 15 minutes long, whereas HBO’s “The Last of Us” takes a more lengthy approach. However, these minor additions add context to what tragedy and loss Joel has endured at the beginning of the outbreak making the events that follow even more heart-wrenching.

The Cordyceps Infection 

Druckmann and Mazin wanted to build beyond the borders of the game and to ground the series in science to make it feel like a real threat. While the game used a fictional mutation of the real-life Cordyceps fungi to create the zombie-like monsters the show added some new ideas that added to the extent of the danger. During the game, it’s never shown where or how the outbreak began exactly even though it is hinted at. With the the television series the co-creators were able to explore the origins of the mutation even further giving viewers more of a scope of the fungus and those infected by it by including some additional scenes.

Cordyceps are a real-life complex of a parasitic fungus that only infect insects but in the world of The Last of Us, this fungus has now mutated to infect human hosts as well. The first episode explored the start of the outbreak and opened with an epidemiologist discussing the evolution and gene mutation of Cordyceps, a scene that was created entirely for the series. He explained his concern over the discovery that the cordyceps can spread the infection to humans with no treatments or cures stating ‘We lose.” The second episode showed us the epicenter of the pandemic with an expert scientist in Indonesia conducting a biopsy and her dramatic reaction realizing “its over.” This unique scene gave us more on the outbreak and its worldwide aftermath. 

Image Via HBO

The infection was modified to fit the show with more of a focus on how the infected are connected. Instead of the infectious spores from the game that required gas masks, the creators wanted to specifically elaborate on how the infected are made as an interconnected network. However, removing the airborne spores didn’t change the fungal roots of the outbreak. Druckmann explained the infected will maintain a sort of mycelial connection with each other, which led to the addition of tendrils. The possibility of these creatures somehow communicating with each other and becoming a sort of hive-mind is more terrifying.

Impactful Character Changes 

Not only were Bella and Pedro fantastic in their portrayals as they perfectly captured the essence and connection of Joel and Ellie literally bringing iconic moments to life. They were able to evoke emotion and expressions that encapsulated the tragedy they both faced more effectively than games can portray. The series also did a phenomenal job of making you care about all of the characters including impactful additions to Tess, Bill, Sam and Marlene’s storylines. By adding backstories and more layers to all of these characters we met in the game we now have much deeper emotional attachments with new ways to keep viewers intrigued.

Tess’ Death Hit Harder

Similar to the game Tess ultimately met her demise leaving behind Joel and Ellie early on in their journey, however you feel much more of a connection. Ana Torv who plays Tess in the HBO series elevates the character with her performance making viewers feel for her loss just as much as the characters do. In the game we don’t necessarily spend much time with her – more or less just another casualty. However, in the show her sacrifice felt much more detrimental with the nature of her relationship with Joel and her growing fondness of Ellie. 

The TV series grounds the characters making you feel more sympathetic. Tess pushes Joel and Ellie to get to the fireflies because she now believes that there could be a chance and that would be a cause worth dying for. She becomes an integral part of Ellie’s journey unlike the game, you could potentially see Tess continue even if Joel wasn’t there. Tess dies giving the world a cure, something that adds more layers to Joel’s perseverance. Instead of being killed by Fedra she is bitten and overcome by infected in an odd but impactful way.

Bill and Frank 

Bill (Nick Offerman) Image Via HBO

Episode 3 was incredibly moving and a great deviation that expanded upon the characters Frank and Bill by giving them a heartfelt apocalyptic love story that is depicted in a way that is entirely unique in dystopian stories. Doomsday prepper Bill (Nick Offerman) was prepared to ride out the apocalypse alone – fully equipped with food and water supply, power, and an arsenal of weapons until a mysterious stranger Frank (Murray Bartlett) appears changing his fate. 

They can’t spend an hour of exploration like gameplay, instead they told a compelling story that expanded upon interactions from the game. Both Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett we’re fantastic in the beautiful episode which was an incredible addition to Bills storyline. Their love felt authentic and gave a sense of humanity in such a dark world. One of the most interesting things about The Last of Us games are the intimate stories and experiences.

Similar to the game Lincoln becomes deserted and Bill is always on the lookout, instead of lovers they worked together to find supplies and supply smugglers with gear. However, Bill was still strict and overprotective of Frank who wanted to leave and wanted more from life. In the game Frank organizes a way to leave Lincoln behind. Later Frank’s body turns up as his escape didn’t go smooth and he hung himself. There’s a letter Joel finds where Frank reveals his true feelings for Bill. There’s a little bit of love in all that hate. 

It played out very differently but the two had a silent love for each-other in the game even if it wasn’t in your face, it was still there. All the show did was make side character’s that much more interesting and show beauty and love in a world of madness.

Introducing Kathleen 

Similar to the game Joel and Ellie encounter the hunters controlling the city when they are attacked and forced to escape and make their way through the city on foot. We are later introduced to Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) an entirely original character created by showrunner and writer Craig Mazin. The addition of Kathleen was brilliant as she becomes the face of the ruthless faction is inspired by the video game’s territorial Hunters, named for hunting “tourists” who trespass the QZ.

This episode explores the fight between humans and how they can be just as a big of a threat if not more than the infected. What the last of us does phenomenally is blur the thin line between right and wrong and the means humans will attempt to justify to survive. Druckmann expressed how in this world there aren’t just good guys and bad guys, and that the different philosophies of how to survive really speak to what the story is about in more new ways than the game did.

Joel and Ellie meet two other survivors, Henry and Sam, who were separated from their group passing through the city after being attacked and scattered by the hunters, in the show it appears they are being hunted for personal reasons as Kathleen believes Henry was responsible for the death of her brother, who was the former leader of the raiders.

Sam and Henry 

Sam (Keivonn Woodard) & Henry (Lamar Johnson) Via HBO

Brothers Henry and Sam already had a shocking and traumatic storyline however the show made their relationship even more impactful by making Sam deaf and completely dependent on his older brother. While the tragic story of the two beloved characters stays pretty true to the source material they have a more intricate backstory in the show. In the game they have no ties to the raiders other than their hope to escape the city alive. In “Endure and Survive,” we spent a lot of time with the two brothers hiding out from Kathleen and her violent revolutionary group as she continues her manhunt. It’s revealed Henry (Lamar Johnson), betrayed Kathleen’s brother and turned him into FEDRA: as it was the only way to access medicine to treat Sam, who had Leukemia. 

While their relation to the Hunters was added for context, their initial meeting with Joel and Ellie wasn’t much different. The four team up to escape the city, and become friendly in the process. Another slight and highly effective change was making Sam younger and deaf. Showrunner Neil Druckmann spoke about this change to The Washington Post

 ‘What if we could use less dialogue?’ That kind of constraint led to really interesting storytelling decisions that I would say in some ways make that sequence [with Sam and Henry] more impactful than it is in the game.” 

– Druckmann via Washington Post video

Keivonn Woodard, who plays Sam, is deaf in real life and perfectly captured the essence of relying on your loved one, and having an innocent semblance of hope. Mirroring the game Sam sadly gets bitten by an infected and turns, which forces Henry to shockingly shoot his own brother. Stricken with grief Henry then turns the gun to his own head, killing himself in front of Joel and Ellie.

David’s Backstory 

David (Scott Shepherd) Image Via HBO

The second-to-last episode introduces another chilling villain from the games. As Ellie crosses paths with a vengeful cult-like group of survivors she draws the attention of its leader David. The cannibal resort episode was pretty much scene for scene, line for line with some added context to David’s backstory. David who was already a devious and perilous antagonist was even more sinister with the addition of religious zealotry and the preacher angle. 

In the series we get a lot more of David’s story than we ever did in the game. David (Scott Shepherd) is horrifying, devious and persuasively commanding. He keeps his townspeople in check with his condescending superior attitude, his authority over the food supply and his manipulation of people’s beliefs. We see his people struggle, yet he always has a full plate of food. He demands respect and bluntly lies about food sources, and the handling of their dead loved ones. A nice addition was having Troy Baker (voice of Joel) as his right-hand man James. 

While it did cut out an entire scene of Ellie and David getting swarmed and fighting off hoards of infected, it was far more effective adding layers to David’s development. While the show often carves out some details, it consistently provides valuable extra moments of context in its place.  

Marlene and Anna

The series also does a remarkable job of exploring Marlene by adding weight to her character through her friendship with Ellie’s mother, and refining her past connections with Joel. Marlene played by Merle Dandridge is the only voice actor from the game to reprise their original role in the series. Overall, she is an incredible character that is truly devoted to her cause of restoring humanity.

The show’s inclusion of Anna not only develops her life-long friendship with Marlene but gives us an explanation for Ellie’s immunity. Through a flashback viewers are introduced to a pregnant woman named Anna played by Ashley Johnson (who voiced and portrayed Ellie in the original game – a perfect fan service to gamers). Anna who turns out to be Ellie’s mother, is attacked and bitten by an infected and cuts Ellie’s umbilical cord in turn giving us a source.

Anna (Ashley Johnson) Image via HBO

Marlene and Anna were revealed to be close friends, with Anna leaving her parting requests. Marlene must kill Anna and she swears to fulfill her dying wishes and protect her baby. This gives viewers context as to why Marlene had Ellie enrolled in Fedra so that she would be in a safer place

After all, Ellie’s mom is dead in the games, she is only mentioned and referenced through small hints. In the game we examine “Marlene’s Journal,” where it seems that Ellie and Marlene had connected way before she was born. While talking about giving Ellie to “a couple of smugglers” (Joel and Tess), Marlene wrote, “I failed you, Anna. I failed all of us. I am an incompetent grunt.” Before her death Anna had written Ellie a letter, which she carries with her as well as her mother’s switchblade. These are the only solid connections between Anna and her daughter in the game. 

Actually seeing this interaction between Anna and Marlene makes the stakes even higher as we experience the tragic moment Marlene lost her friend and took on the responsibility of keeping Ellie safe. 

Marlene may not be a focal protagonist like Joel, but her role is just as significant especially when it comes down to the ending. At the hospital as Ellie is being prepped for the fatal surgery for the best possibility for a cure, Joel confronts Marlene inferring she doesn’t know what’s at stake. In the game Marlene makes references to knowing exactly how Joel feels but most of this is only engaged through interacting with tape recordings and journals. In the TV adaptation we actually see how Marlene feels Joel’s pain and how her choice is for the greater good even though its painful.

Although there are some changes in terms of Ellie’s relationship with Marlene, in the games Marlene is more physically present in Ellie’s life which can be see as a con – the show does still offer an explanation. While Ellie never met Marlene, Marlene has still always known Ellie and protected her from afar by placing her in Fedra away from danger. By doing this the show centered more on her not fulfilling her promise to Anna as the showrunners wanted us to know she is driven by her love for Anna.

All things considered it still successfully nailed the bigger picture of questioning who rightfully gets to make this decision, and that everything has consequences. Ultimately, the lines have become blurred between what’s right and wrong in the most pivotal scene. Marlene told Joel that she wouldn’t feel pain, that she understands and there is no other choice and Joel murders her in cold blood killing everyone in his path. Even though we are viewing through his eyes, just like the game Joel may be the protagonist but he is no hero, through his love for Ellie he ultimately doomed the rest of the world.


Joel and Ellie (Pascal and Ramsey) via HBO

Overall, the series did an exceptional job of bringing to life the beloved characters and showcasing the underlying themes of the limits of survival. Sure we would like to see more clickers and Molotovs but one of the most interesting things about the last of us games are the intimate stories and experiences of the different characters. The creators clearly cared deeply about making this adaptation as true to the source material while also expanding upon it to bring to life this epic narrative in a refreshing way for gamers and new audiences. 

Incredible cast, sound, set design, color grading, environments, score, and screenplay adding to the already outstanding narrative. Also including the original music composer Gustavo Santaolalla is icing on the cake.

You can watch my episodic recaps on You-Tube for more game changes and in-depth breakdowns including Jackson Hole and the escape from the tunnels.

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