Review: ‘The Last of Us’: a masterclass in television adaptation of the popular video game

HBO’s take of the survival video game pushes boundaries of what TV can be


Photo Courtesy of HBO

The Last of Us teaser poster.

by Naiima Paul , Staff Writer

HBO’s newest drama “The Last of Us” provides a quality adaptation of the 2013 adventure video game. The game’s extreme popularity gave the show’s creators a unique challenge in satisfying fans of a different entertainment medium and introducing the story to a new audience. 

The critically acclaimed story takes place in a dystopian world where a strain of the cordyceps fungus has mutated to infect human brains, taking over their bodies and turning them into ravenous cannibalistic monsters. The plot follows Joel Miller, a survivor of the outbreak who is tasked with smuggling Ellie, a young girl with an unexplainable immunity to the spread of the outbreak, across the country to a medical center. 

Unlike the traditional depiction of zombies, the “infected” are a uniquely powerful enemy with the combined agility of their human bodies and the resilience of the fungus controlling their brains. The game’s concept and design were universally praised for its unique take on the zombie outbreak, with a frighteningly realistic scenario that started with spores infecting flour that was distributed around the world.

The television series’ stunning visual effects brought the infected to life in a terrifying way. The VFX team created extremely realistic prosthetics to portray the visible cordyceps growing through their skin, recreating the chilling images of humans consumed by fungus from the game. The impressive makeup combined with impressive physical acting from actors creates a viscerally disturbing adversary for our protagonists to face.

As Joel and Ellie navigate the landscape, fighting to avoid the dangers of the infected and violent raiders, it’s clear that the series constructed a world that felt immersive and lived in. Within nine hour long episodes, “The Last of Us”  establishes the rich lore for new fans while maintaining the original story. With the striking visuals and career defining performances, it’s almost impossible to look away. 

Pedro Pascal expertly portrays Joel as the violent anti-hero willing to do anything to protect himself and the people he loves. His performance brought a new emotional depth to the character that made him easy to root for, even though his actions are presented as morally ambiguous or sometimes completely crossing the line of human decency. 

He perfectly captures the emotional complexity of survival in unimaginable circumstances. Fans of Pascal will be happy to see him continue his string of impressive leading role performances, following his similarly memorable roles in “Narcos” and “The Mandalorian.”

Similarly, Bella Ramsey, most known for her previous HBO role as a recurring character on the Game of Thrones series, holds her own with her role as Ellie. Her rebellious spirit and snappy comebacks made her an instantly captivating character. As a loud, vulgar, unapologetically queer teenage girl, Ellie’s character provides a realistic dose of representation that Ramsey executes perfectly.

Together, Pascal and Ramsey bring their own take to the iconic duo that helped turn the game into a fan favorite. Joel and Ellie form an irresistibly charismatic team, with enough soul and lightheartedness that sometimes the bleakness of their surroundings fades into the background. The show also subverts roles, going from Joel taking the role as Ellie’s protector to having Ellie save Joel from the many dangers they face. As the dramatic events of the show play out, their father-daughter relationship becomes equally beautiful as it is heartbreaking.

The series explores the survival of a variety of identities, with focus on how each character’s unique needs and past traumas affect their decisions. The characters are all unique in a variety of ways, with diversity in identity, age, and ability. Rather than focusing solely on Joel and Ellie, the show presents scenes (and sometimes whole episodes) dedicated to side characters who were either only briefly seen in the game or created for the show completely.

Representation is a major aspect of the series, with a Latino leading man and queer actor portraying our heroes. There are also stories expanding on character’s identities, such as exploring Ellie’s sexuality and exploring use of sign language by deaf children. 

A memorable episode is the third one of the season, which depicts a beautifully queer told romance between two of the game’s side characters, Bill and Frank. By expanding on storylines that were only touched upon in the game, the show brings a new dimension to the canon of the story.

Fans of the game will be happy that the show largely follows the plot of the original story. The series’ production team made a variety of choices to adjust the video game to the small screen, however it is widely faithful to its source material. The series shines in its use of the cinematic medium to go deeper into ideas explored in the game, as well as providing different perspectives on stories that you were only able to see through Joel or Ellie’s eyes in the game.

Overall, HBO’s team did an excellent job of adapting the unique medium of video games to a televised format, setting a blueprint for future shows to do the same. This is truly a show that will make you laugh and cry within moments of each other. It’s safe to say that the series has reignited love for the game and brought new fans eager to see the story continue. Production on season 2 has already been announced.