“The Last of Us” is a perfect adaptation

Reading Time: 2 minutes HBO has been searching for a new flagship series since fumbling “Game of Thrones.” They may have just found one.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Adaptation remains one of Hollywood’s most daunting challenges. A majority of great films are originally created for the big screen, and for good reason. Video game to film adaptation appears to be particularly tricky for filmmakers, as evidenced by recent critical failures such as “Warcraft” (2016) and “Uncharted” (2022).

Television as a medium seems more equipped to adapt video game stories to the screen, on account of a television series being longer and generally better at telling stories of a broader scope than its cinematic counterpart. Although, controversial TV adaptations like “The Witcher” (2019) prove that even the episodic nature of television isn’t enough to elevate video game adaptation to acclaimed critical renown. Perhaps HBO’s new hit series “The Last of Us” will finally break the mold to become a template for future video game adaptations to emulate.

“The Last of Us,” an adaptation of the 2013 game of the same name, premiered on Jan. 15 on HBO Max. The pilot starred Pedro Pascal as the show’s gruff protagonist, Joel; though that’s really all that can be said of his character without giving too much away. Pascal is eventually joined by his co-star Bella Ramsey, who perfectly captures the devil-may-care, expletive-filled personality of fourteen-year-old Ellie. The pilot concludes with the two stars colliding in post-apocalyptic Boston, sending the pair on a dire trajectory that the remainder of the season will follow.

The pilot is exceptional, full stop. Pascal, Ramsey and the rest of the cast deliver subdued performances pocketed with moments of emotional brilliance. Throughout the episode’s opening half-hour, tension builds in the background without the showrunners ever resorting to cheap jumpscares. Unequivocally, it’s a horror series — yet creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin understand the source of true terror to be more mundane than sudden shots of undead monsters.

Fans of the source material were quick to point out the incredibly faithful conversion of moments from the game to scenes in the show: lines of dialogue are borrowed directly from the game’s opening scene, and cinematography reminiscent of third-person video game perspectives is used strategically throughout.

Previous video game adaptations (see: “Warcraft”)  have attempted to tell their source materials’ stories in a cinematic medium by restructuring the story entirely, omitting and creating story elements as deemed necessary until the final product becomes nearly unrecognizable. Druckmann and Mazin recognize the merit of their source material, and unlike the creators of “Warcraft,” they elect to translate its exceptional storytelling to the screen as accurately as possible, only making cinematic changes when their medium demands it.

The pilot of “The Last of Us” is brilliant in its simplicity, and we can only hope that future installments of the show will share the pilot’s philosophy regarding adaptation and showrunning. Find out and watch episode 2 this Sunday, Jan. 2 on HBO Max.