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Opinion: HBO’s “The Last of Us” Is a Faithful Adaptation of the Beloved Video Game Classic

Pedro Pascal as “Joel” and Bella Ramsey as “Ellie,” photo courtesy of HBO.

The zombie apocalypse genre has been portrayed on big and small screens for decades. Whether it’s the long-running television show “The Walking Dead,” or classics like the 1964 film, “Night of the Living Dead,” critics and audience members alike have seen almost every kind of apocalypse movie and show Hollywood has to offer. The ubiquity of the zombie genre has also been seen in video games, which typically offer lots of gory fun, but little nuance in the stories they tell. This, of course, isn’t the case for every video game. 

When game studio Naughty Dog released “The Last of Us” on June 14, 2013, it was immediately welcomed with critical acclaim. Although the game’s story was emotionally resonant and its setting was interesting, writer and game director Neil Druckmann expanded his apocalyptic world through a cast of masterfully written and performed characters. 

Naughty Dog is no stranger to popular titles with strong stories and characters. When the action/adventure game “Uncharted” came out in 2007, it revolutionized the way stories could be told through the video game medium. The “Uncharted” franchise popularized linear storytelling, similar to that of movies and television shows, garnering praise with each entry in the series, and eventually being adapted into a film starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg in 2022. 

Like most video game film adaptations, “Uncharted” was a critical failure. Whether it was the questionable casting choices, the subpar special effects, or the unnecessary changes to the original “Uncharted” story, the film was Naughty Dog’s first attempt at adapting their titles to the big screen, and it left much to be desired. 

“I wasn’t too excited about [‘The Last of Us’] until maybe like two weeks before it premiered just because video game adaptations don’t usually do the games justice,” said junior psychology major and Pasadena City College student Nick Owens, from South Pasadena, California. “So, two weeks before the show came out, I was super hyped about it. Pedro Pascal is a great actor; I liked Bella Ramsey in ‘Game of Thrones,’ and so I got pretty excited talking about it with my friends.” 

Both the HBO show and the game follow Joel Miller, played by Pedro Pascal and voiced by Troy Baker in the original game, a father who lost his daughter during the outbreak and was forced to cope in an apocalyptic world. Twenty years after his daughter’s passing, Joel is faced with the task of transporting a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey and voiced by Ashley Johnson, to a group of doctors that may be able to make a cure from Ellie’s immunity to the virus. 

In the game, Joel’s bitterness and depression from his daughter’s death prevent him from connecting to Ellie immediately. Ellie, a somewhat naive, foul-mouthed jokester contrasts perfectly with Joel’s seriousness; she was born into a dysfunctional world, while Joel had to adapt to it. As the game progresses, their dynamic changes and Joel slowly adopts the fatherly sensibilities he once had. 

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“My favorite aspect of the game was the storytelling,” Owens said. “It wasn’t really about the infected or the zombies, it was more so about the love between Ellie and Joel… I think it’s a very simple story, but it’s very effective.” 

Ellie (Ashley Johnson) and Joel (Troy Baker) in “The Last of Us: Part I” PS5 Remake.

With the release of the first episode on Sunday, Jan. 15, fans were pleased to see that the show remained faithful to its source material, while also adding more context and nuance to the characters and setting. Prior to the series premiere, however, many were worried the show would fall short, like Cal Poly Pomona junior and electrical engineering major Earl Tizon, from Los Angeles, California. 

“Video game adaptations never come out well,” Tizon began. “I was having some doubts, but once I heard that Neil Druckmann was working on it, I knew it was going to be good. But before that, I was really worried about how Joel and Ellie would be portrayed because they are so important to the story, so I was really doubtful.” 

Currently sitting at 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 9.4 on IMDb, the series quickly became one of the highest-rated shows in television history, right under “Breaking Bad.” The series also boasted 4.7 million viewers the first night, making it the second largest HBO opening in more than a decade, next to “House of the Dragon.” 

Reviews for the show may come as no surprise to those who watched the HBO limited series, “Chernobyl.” Craig Mazin, the creator of “Chernobyl,” co-created “The Last of Us” series alongside original game creator Neil Druckmann. With a direct connection to the game’s director and an experienced writer/director like Mazin, the show had all the right parts to build a stellar series, something that was on full display during the first episode. 

The anxiety, heartbreak, violence, and hope captured in the 2013 game are all present in the show; aspects that are bolstered by strong performances from Pascal, Ramsey, and Nico Parker, who portrays Joel’s daughter, Sarah. 

“My favorite part is the characters,” Tizon said. “Every character that you meet is just so interesting… and when good characters die, you really feel it.” 

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“The Last of Us” benefits from having a simple, straightforward story that allows for a more seamless transition into television. Its source material is already well written and powerfully acted, so a retelling of its story just needed to be faithful, while also adding new, believable aspects to the already established lore that would translate better for general audiences. 

New episodes of “The Last of Us” are released every Sunday and can be watched on HBO Max

Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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