HBO’s new post-apocalyptic series is based on a video game with tens of millions of fans. For them and for newcomers, here’s what to expect.
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By Brian Tallerico
The pop culture landscape is littered with bad adaptations of hit video games, from the notoriously awful 1993 film “Super Mario Bros.” to the recently canceled series “Resident Evil,” on Netflix. HBO hopes to buck that trend with its first, “The Last of Us,” based on the wildly popular video game series about the survivors of a devastating pandemic. After years of being stuck in development purgatory as a potential movie, the adaptation has evolved into one of this winter’s most hotly anticipated shows, starring Pedro Pascal (“The Mandalorian”) and Bella Ramsey (“Game of Thrones).
Premiering on Sunday, the nine-episode first season largely follows the outline of the first PlayStation game, from 2013, which to date has sold over 20 million copies. New to the franchise? Here’s what to know about the series before it debuts.
Developed by the video game company Naughty Dog, “The Last of Us” is a deeply cinematic game set after the collapse of civilization, caused by a parasitic fungus that turns people into brain-dead, flesh-ripping monsters. The game was an instant success — a divisive 2020 sequel likewise sold millions — and it was targeted for adaptation almost immediately.
In 2014, the production studio Screen Gems announced that it would be distributing a Sam Raimi-produced film version of the game, with Kaitlyn Dever and the “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams as early contenders to play the female lead. In 2016, the project stalled over creative disagreements about the tone of the film, with one of the lead developers of the game, Neil Druckmann, saying that he had wanted a movie resembling “No Country for Old Men” while the studio wanted “World War Z.”
Then in March 2020, HBO announced it would be producing a series created by Druckmann and Craig Mazin, the creator of HBO’s Emmy-winning “Chernobyl.” Part zombie flick, part road picture, the result (based on an advance screening of the first nine episodes) is a bleak, post-apocalyptic television drama with echoes “Children of Men,” “The Road” and “The Walking Dead.”
A frightening future, today
The bulk of Season 1 takes place in 2023, two decades after a heartbreaking prologue in which Joel (Pascal), a construction contractor and single father from Austin, sees his life fall apart and the pandemic take hold. By our present year, the world has been torn apart not only by the vicious creatures who were once human but also by a brutal military dictatorship. For everyone else, it’s often kill or be killed.
In this dystopian future, where Boston has become a walled city, Joel meets a switchblade-wielding teenage girl named Ellie (Ramsey), who is being held captive by a rebel group known as the Fireflies. The Fireflies have discovered that Ellie is immune to the fungus and may, therefore, hold the key to humanity’s survival. When Joel’s brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), goes missing, Joel, who in this new world has become an intrepid smuggler, agrees to smuggle Ellie outside the walls. In exchange, the Fireflies give him the supplies he needs to search for his brother. Things go quickly wrong, and the cross-country journey begins.
Familiar faces (and sounds)
Most of the supporting characters in the HBO version of “The Last of Us” will be familiar to players of the game, including Joel’s smuggling partner (and seeming romantic partner), Tess (Anna Torv), and the Fireflies leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who also voiced the character in the game). Fans of the game series will also recognize the brothers Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard); Ellie’s former ally Riley (Storm Reid); and the malevolent David (Scott Shepherd), a cult leader with dark secrets of his own.
A few major characters, however, won’t be so recognizable. Nick Offerman plays the familiar smuggler Bill, but his role in the series is very different. Another character named Frank, who is only a dead body in the game, is brought to life by Murray Bartlett in the series. A vicious revolutionary named Kathleen, played by Melanie Lynskey, is entirely new.
Mazin and Druckmann also found small onscreen roles for the game’s main voice actors, including Troy Baker (who voices Joel in the game), Ashley Johnson (who voices Ellie) and Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy). Even the game’s original composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, returns to do the TV score.
A faithful adaptation
The big question for fans of the video game is, how faithful will the series be to its source material? Early signs suggest the answer is “very,” with the show including most of the major characters and plot points. It even incorporates material from the excellent expansion prequel to the game titled “Left Behind.”
Without the action-first requirements of a video game, Druckmann and Mazin seem freed to deepen the dominant themes. As a result, the show tells an even more character-driven, grounded story about a broken man who is stuck in the past and the traumatized girl who forces him to rediscover his own humanity, equal partners in a symbiotic hero’s journey. Joel has barely scraped by for 20 years when he meets Ellie, but she gives him reason to hope again, even as their road winds through unspeakable violence.
Unlike a lot of child-in-distress characters, Ellie is extremely tough; she grew up in this world, and her arc is as essential as Joel’s. The game has been lauded for its diversity of characters in a medium often dominated by macho male protagonists, and that hasn’t been lost in translation.
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