What The Last Of Us gained and lost from its HBO adaptation

The first season of The Last Of Us TV show is now over and live action video game adaptations will likely never been the same again.

Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us was a defining game for PlayStation 3 when it was released in 2013, just prior to the arrival of PlayStation 4. Its gritty and emotionally devastating story was a world away from the naturalistic jollity that marked the studio’s other big success, the Uncharted franchise. It was also unabashedly cinematic, making its re-emergence as a TV show not altogether surprising.

Since Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog’s co-president and lead writer, was involved in making the series, it’s not much of a shock to find it sticks very closely to the story told by the game. That’s not to say it’s identical, because without the agency of controlling the characters yourself there had to be a balance shift: traversal puzzles and long fights against the infected are out and deeper, more personal, dialogue is very much in.

Players of the games will also find characters aren’t exactly as they remember. Joel, played by Pedro ‘Mando’ Pascal is still a gruff man’s man, albeit one with a greater penchant for chat than he had on consoles, and Ellie’s now a lot feistier. In the games she’s shy and although resourceful, often seems vulnerable. On TV, Bella Ramsey’s Ellie is tougher, more self-possessed, and a lot less apologetic.

Sticklers for accuracy will find plenty of other details have shifted in the transition to non-interactive entertainment. The action now takes place in 2023 rather than 2033; a lot has changed around Joel’s love interest, Tess; and adorable gay couple Bill and Frank get a lot more screen time, to heartbreaking effect.

While it doesn’t affect the arc of the plot, there are some larger differences, most significantly the addition of the Nurse Ratched style villainess, Kathleen, who rules Kansas City with an iron fist. Actress Melanie Lynskey is perfectly cast, her portrayal of Kathleen’s icy brutality making her an uncomfortably believable force for evil. In the game, Joel and Ellie stop off in Pittsburgh instead, so her entire story is new, even if the heroes end up precisely where they would have been.

In fact, possibly the only significant issue in its transition is having to watch on NowTV, which if you’re used to Netflix, Disney+ or indeed practically any other streaming service, is painful to endure. On Now you’ll find there are frequent ad breaks, and even if you pay not to have ads (that’ll be an extra £6 per month) you still get force-fed an unskippable trailer before every episode.

NowTV’s interface also offers no option to skip the show’s lengthy intro sequence and disables the fast forward button on your remote, forcing you to use the cursor and okay buttons to manually select fast forward. It’s probably a ploy to make it harder to skip intros, which would in turn highlight the fact that the first ad break is only a few minutes into the show, but it also makes it annoyingly cumbersome to rewind if you miss a line of dialogue.

For the overwhelming majority of the time, though, you’ll simply be soaking up the atmosphere, characters, and world building. Even though the series’ sets are relentlessly grey and claustrophobic, featuring more than their fair share of basements and rooms with newspapered-over windows, it remains visually interesting throughout. Its shattered cityscapes and collapsed skyscrapers make convincingly depressing backdrops, and the show manages not to overdo it on the shaky-cam.

You’ll still find yourself bracing for the moments of tragedy that follows characters getting closer to one another, most poignantly in Joel and Ellie themselves. As in the game, the gradual melting of the frost between them, as Joel comes to regard Ellie as the daughter he lost 20 years previously, is enough to pierce the stoniest of hearts.

Joel’s reunion with his brother, Tommy, is now a little warmer and more emotional – and unlike the game, isn’t interrupted by a gunfight with a group of bandits – while Ellie and Riley’s almost-love affair still plays out in the splendour of an abandoned shopping mall, even if some details are shuffled to make for a better passive viewing experience.

The finale is just as emotionally wrenching as it was in the game, and for much of the episode actually mirrors its PlayStation counterpart almost line for line. They do finally manage to reach safety, but to get there Joel lies about what happened, not letting on that Ellie’s still the only one with immunity and therefore potentially humanity’s last hope, taking the burden of that knowledge on himself.

Watching Joel turn into a monster in his quest to protect Ellie is a theme that runs through the first season. The multiple murders in cold blood, and the deceit, are all enacted to make sure Ellie is safe, firstly to fulfil his promise to deliver her to the hospital in Boston, but eventually because he loves her as fiercely as he did his own daughter.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how the show adapts The Last Of Us Part 2, where it’s Ellie’s turn to become monstrous. Bella Ramsey fans may be in for quite a shock as they see their heroine change from plucky teenage survivor to ruthless sadist. Her motivations may be understandable at first, but her joyless rampage eventually makes her character utterly repellent.

That’s heightened in the second half of the game (the show’s creators have implied it will split the game into two seasons) when you get to see the effects of her barbarity from the perspective of those subjected to it, casting the whole cycle of violence into an even starker light. Not to mention, it may be an HBO show, and they have a stronger stomach than most when it comes to ultra violence, but some of the game’s more graphic scenes might be a stretch even for them.

For now though, The Last of Us Part 1 is done. Its TV incarnation may have looked a little less cinematic, thanks to streaming services’ love of close-ups, but it remains absolutely true to the game’s spirit, tone of voice, and discomfiting mixture of horror and tenderness, depicting humanity in all its myriad shades of grey. We’re looking forward to season 2, even if it’s with a certain degree of trepidation.

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