“The Last of Us” is Adaptation at its Finest
I wrote this article so I could convince myself playing the game is actually productive
Written by Cara Robbins
* This article contains spoilers for both the series and video game “The Last of Us”*
With the first season of hit show “The Last of Us” coming to a close, fans old and new have praised the series’ transition from video game to HBO, with many saying that it has finally broken the video game adaption curse. The charm of “The Last of Us” boils down to adapting the original content well. The art of adaptation requires a deep and tasteful understanding of a story’s original medium as well as the new medium, and the creators of “The Last of Us” deliver.
The Art of Video Games
As a medium for storytelling, video games allow for immersive experiences. Utilizing the art form is about exploiting this immersion — specifically the fact that the audience will identify with the protagonist far more than in other mediums. Many games, such as “The Witcher III: Wild Hunt” and “Life is Strange,” use this to their advantage by emphasizing the importance of choice. These games consistently push the player between a rock and hard place, forcing them to make difficult choices to explore consequences and tensions.
“The Last of Us” doesn’t utilize choice-based structure to build themes in the same way as some other games. It follows a strictly linear narrative path, and the choices that the player makes in Joel’s and Ellie’s shoes don’t affect the outcome of the story. But that doesn’t mean the player isn’t forced to make choices — the player is faced with small, thematic choices that make you think. Once the choice is made, there might be some changing response dialogue, but then the story resumes as normal.
The game places constant moral and psychological pressure on Joel (and the player) to choose who to kill and who to spare. The thematic impact is palpable — Joel has the autonomy to feel the moral consequences of his choices, but all the while, he and Ellie are dragged deeper and deeper into unavoidable peril. Nothing they do can stop what is to come, no matter how hard they try. The stark game mechanism beautifully reflects the dog-eat-dog philosophy in “The Last of Us” — when you have to do horrible things to save the people you love, you have no other choice left on the table. This backbone also provides a stable foundation for a series adaptation, avoiding the plotline pitfalls that shows like “The Witcher” have to deal with.
Long-form narrative structure in film and television, on the other hand, does not guarantee the same automatic immersion in the world. In video games, empathy is automatic because you have no choice but to see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. A television series has to fight for it — constantly giving the audience a reason to feel strong emotions about the fictional world and to care about the struggles and goals of the protagonist. “The Last of Us” handles this challenge by heightening the visuals and worldbuilding. Each location featured in the video game is brought to life with charming and vivid scenery.
In order to garner empathy for the protagonist, Pedro Pascal (awooga) as Joel is softer than the game’s version. We see him cry, express his fears, and bond with Ellie far more and far earlier than in the game — take a look at the difference between the conversation that Joel has with his brother Tom about taking Ellie without him, featured in episode six, “Kin.” Pascal’s softness doesn’t mean that he can’t encapsulate the cold resolve that makes Joel such a stellar antihero — he delivers on Joel’s worst, most controversial moments.
In addition, the flexibility of the television series format allows for the narrative to follow other stories. Characters who in the game serve as little more than plot functions and antagonists are far more developed, with ripe personalities, cultures and ambitions — emblematic in Kathleen, the leader of the Kansas City resistance group featured in episode five, “Endure and Survive,” who was barely more than a killable NPC in the game. Audiences can watch Tess’s gut-wrenching last moments, they can see the first woman to study cordyceps in the early days of the pandemic, and they can learn about Ellie’s birth story and the tragedy that befell her mother.
And of course, any analysis of “The Last of Us” wouldn’t be complete without the stand-out episode “Long, Long Time.” Not only are some praising it as potentially the best television writing of the year (an achievement, considering it debuted in February), it also marks the biggest deviation from the original plotline. In the game, Bill’s character serves as little more than a stereotypical mentor — helping Joel and Ellie in his own sardonic way and offering advice on their path forward. In the series, he is dead before Joel and Ellie ever arrive on site. Instead, we get to see the entire post-pandemic lives of Bill and his partner Frank, who in the game was nothing more than a corpse, a note and a few bitter remarks from Bill.
Nick Offerman embodies the paranoid survivalist Bill perfectly — and his tenderness and intimacy with co-actor Murray Bartlett is absolutely electric. Instead of watching Bill fight hoards of Infected in a demolished town, we see the slice of heaven Bill created for Frank. Their love is sweet and innocent. In a brutal and demolished world, they achieve the impossible of dying on their own terms: old, peaceful and beside the person they love most. Audiences know why the Bill of the series chooses to continue every day — in the game, however, he becomes the antithesis of the theme. He has nothing and no one to keep him going. Comparatively, Bill’s character in the game feels weak, disjointed and only there to serve the plot.
What Stays the Same
When it comes to discussing adaptation, it is easier to notice what changes — but the creators choose to keep the same is infinitely more important. At the core, what is essential to any good adaptation is not only preserving, but enhancing, the heart of the story. “The Last of Us” delivers on this front. It shows what lengths people will go for those they love, it explores what we cling to when the world goes dark. It asks the terrifying questions of what defines humanity, what grounds our identity and if that identity is still intact when we lose control.
The scenes that are closely recreated from the game are chosen to perfectly encapsulate the heart of the series. The creators knew that any attempt to change these specific sequences, like the fight between Joel and Ellie and the audience-favorite giraffe scene, would disrespect the factors that make “The Last of Us” such a moving game in the first place.
This adaptation works so well because every single change made is done to heighten the ideological core of the story. Sam is deaf because it escalates how dependent he is on Henry. Ellie tries to heal Sam because it reflects her need to save the people she cares about. Riley’s story is expanded because it amplifies Ellie’s fear of abandonment. Joel admits to his suicide attempt because it shows what he has to lose without a daughter figure in his life.
Essentially, “The Last of Us” is such a phenomenal adaptation because the creators have so much love and respect for the original story. It has hopefully become a model in the industry for future adapted series, as audience expectations on quality have reached an all-time high following the series’ success. Here’s hoping that season two will do the same justice to the series with “The Last of Us: Part II.”