The Last of Us HBO review: True to the game, and just as hard-hitting

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HBO’s “The Last of Us” places a lot of faith in its source material’s writing. The TV adaptation doesn’t veer far from the script set by the video game. That confidence is not misplaced.

The 2013 PlayStation 3 title, Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us,” broke ground as a video game that looked more like a prestige TV show or film than just about any other game before it. Players took on the roles of Joel, a long-grieving father turned black market smuggler who suffered immeasurable tragedy at the start of a zombie outbreak, and 14-year-old Ellie, an orphan who has only ever known the post-apocalypse — a militarized and zombie-ridden America. This Sunday — nearly a decade after the first game’s release — old PlayStation fans and new viewers alike will see fresh faces in those roles: Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsay playing Ellie.

The zombies in “The Last of Us” aren’t the undead. Instead, they are humans infected with the real-life Cordyceps fungal infection, which takes over the brain functions of creatures, mostly insects. In “The Last of Us,” humans are susceptible to this and become manic, ravenous monsters. And unlike a viral pandemic, there is no vaccine.

HBO’s take on the video game property finally answers the question: What if a big-budget TV or film adaptation stayed faithful to the source material, even repeating the same scenes, lines and big story beats? Because that’s exactly what the show does. There are scenes throughout the first season that are direct line reads of key scenes from the game. The nine episodes follow the exact same story beats and almost the same locations as the original game too. People who know the game by heart will likely be able to recite some lines right as they’re being spoken in the show. I’ve played the game dozens of times over the years. Watching the show, I felt like some old stage actor, seeing others reading lines I knew by heart, repeating actions just as I had performed them in 2013 and many times since.

Because “The Last of Us” was already structured and written like a TV show, HBO’s rendition is primed to work — and it does. It treats most of the key scenes well, with doting respect. In some ways, the story is better for it, thanks to more granular insight into the lives of certain characters. For example, the brothers Sam and Henry — already pivotal characters from the game — are given a far more extensive story that explains their plight and their reasons for wanting to join Joel and Ellie. They feel less like characters in a “side quest” in a game, especially since their relationship now draws stronger, clearer parallels between them and Joel and his older brother.

The most common complaint video game enthusiasts have about TV or film adaptations is that they rarely stay true to the source material. Just ask any fan of Resident Evil who had to sit through Milla Jovovich kung-fu kicking her way through six films that barely referenced the original game. More recently, Paramount’s “Halo” show in 2022 drew relentless backlash from the game’s community over how it rewrote characters to have completely different motivations and personalities.

HBO’s “The Last of Us,” adapted by showrunner Craig Mazin (of “Chernobyl” fame), will likely not draw the same ire. Instead, the show offers exactly what fans have loudly demanded: an adaptation that feels faithful to the source material in look, sound and vibes. It works because The Last of Us series had already won over a wide audience of players, and remains among the most highly decorated video game franchises ever made.

Like the game, Mazin and Druckmann’s reworked TV version is not an ensemble story; this is no “The Walking Dead.” Instead, it is laser focused on the budding relationship between two people who want nothing to do with each other. “The Last of Us” is more of a buddy road trip show than yet another show about a zombie apocalypse. The monsters are barely the focus. And like in the game, it portrays this all with earnestness and not an ounce of irony.

Despite being faithful in many key moments, there are some notable changes and additions to the characters. The show, it seems, wants to be less cynical than the game. One early episode, where two characters are completely reworked in plot, characterization, motivation and rapport, is the entire season’s highlight. In the game, these characters’ stories ended with tragedy, bitterness and anger. The show, however, treats these two with far more dignity and grace.

That story is of a kind that could not have been told in the game. The game’s true magic lay in allowing players to embody Joel and Ellie. This meant the perspective of the story could never leave their eyes, lest we lose control as the audience. But in the show, the camera and the writing are finally liberated from the two leads, allowing new side stories to flourish, enriching our understanding of the world and its characters. For those familiar with the game, “enchanting and romantic” are two words you might not associate with this story. But HBO’s revision manages to tell a loving story in a loveless, lifeless world.

Pascal and Ramsay also have chemistry that just works. As someone familiar with the original game performances by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, I still saw the HBO portrayals as true to Joel and Ellie. The game focused on their journey’s most portentous scenes, but the show allows peeks into quieter, less busy moments. Again, there is more kindness here than the game could have allowed. Joel and Ellie, less hurried by the mandates of driving an action video game, are allowed to talk more, and on occasion, smile and laugh.

“The Last of Us” creators explain Ellie’s arc: From wide-eyed girl to a woman fueled by vengeance

When the show lurches toward its most pivotal scenes, Pascal and Ramsay are at their best. The heartbreaking first 15 minutes of the game are depicted here, and Pascal’s performance underscores the blooming heartache that would fester into a shriveled, diminished soul. I knew what was going to happen, it happened, yet I still felt compelled to shed a tear. And Ramsay’s “Game of Thrones” experience was great practice for portraying Ellie as a young girl born into a world that doesn’t nurture innocence. Ellie’s reluctant guardian is a broken man — and an ill portent for her future.

The entire season covers the plot of the first game. The show doesn’t feel hurried; each episode lasts about an hour long. Many of the episodic emotional cliffhangers from the first game are, again, echoed in the show. Now, a new generation of TV watchers will engage with the debate that players of the game have litigated over and over for the past decade, around character decisions and what it means to do the right thing in a shattered world.

There is a nagging sense that some minor changes to dialogue were made just for the sake of change, and it’s hard for me, as someone who’s digested the game thoroughly for years, to parse whether they work better. In my initial judgment, they seem like lateral changes, not worse, not necessarily better. Viewers in the know will notice, and like me, may wonder why these changes were made when the original lines conveyed the same information and emotions.

But as someone who admires the original game and what it achieved, HBO’s “The Last of Us” is still a fascinating and enjoyable ride through an old familiar adventure tale, powered by actors who honor the original vision. When I compare the two stories, and the artistic choices made to differentiate the show from the game, I have to admit: the HBO version sometimes steals the show.

“The Last of Us” premieres on HBO and HBO Max Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

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