Review: HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ pulls off an almost perfect adaptation

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After several prior attempts at a movie adaptation, Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed 2013 game “The Last of Us” has finally been adapted into an HBO streaming series, helmed by the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, and “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin.

Left to right: Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) stand together. Contributed photo by Warner Media.

Things have changed since “The Last of Us” originally released in 2013, with zombie apocalypse shows not being as popular as they once were. It’s also been a few years since 2020’s “The Last of Us Part II,” which received ferociously polarized reactions that rival “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and 2022’s “The Last of Us Part I,” a remake of the first game. But despite all that, was the long wait worth it? Yes.

Based on “Part I,” season one of HBO’s “The Last of Us” takes place in a post-apocalypse caused by the Cordyceps fungus, which turns people into zombie-like creatures called the “Infected.” The Fireflies resistance group tasks a smuggler named Joel (Pedro Pascal) to take Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenager who is immune to the Cordyceps virus, to a Firefly hospital where they can find a cure. They encounter not only Infected, but cannibals, violent rebel groups, militaristic governments and more as they travel through the apocalyptic United States.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) in the season finale of HBO’s “The Last of Us.” Contributed photo by Warner Media.

Immediately, the season premiere gets viewers invested through flashbacks that contextualize the outbreak and Joel’s backstory. They quickly establish the season’s tone and atmosphere as we watch the horrific chaos of the world ending from the perspective of Joel and his daughter Sarah. This includes screaming crowds, grisly deaths, falling planes and a one-take driving scene in which Joel’s family tries to escape the growing claustrophobia and mayhem.

And just when you think it can’t get worse, Sarah is shot and killed by a soldier, leaving Joel in despair as the scene ends in somberness. By the time the first episode cuts to the present day, Joel has become hardened and indifferent to the apocalypse, and that misery and anguish never leaves the show.

Thankfully keeping it different from his eerily similar role as Din Djarin in “The Mandalorian,” Pascal excels as Joel. He perfectly portrays roughness and vulnerability as Joel naturally grows closer to Ellie, forming a father-daughter relationship that fills the hole left behind by Sarah. However, Joel isn’t afraid to be mercilessly cruel in killing and torturing people, which becomes more unsettling as his attachment to Ellie grows.

Ramsey’s effortless performance makes Ellie just as compelling as Joel, if not more compelling at times. They match Ellie’s snark from the games without turning her into a caricature of a teenage girl. Even during several traumatic scenes with deaths of Ellie’s loved ones, Ramsey subtly expresses Ellie’s loss of innocence while maintaining her goofiness and attitude.

Left to right: Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) in episode three of HBO’s “The Last of Us.” Contributed photo by Warner Media.

Some standouts from the great supporting cast include couple Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), whose touching story is featured in one of the season’s best episodes, and Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the ruthless leader of an independent resistance group. I also wished Joel’s partner, Tess (Anna Torv), was in the series more since she provided a great dynamic with Joel and Ellie.

There’s also David (Scott Shepherd), a leader of a Christian community that becomes one of the show’s creepiest characters. Some of the most notably tragic scenes wouldn’t be as effective without Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard), a young, deaf child who hides from Kathleen with his older brother, Henry (Lamar Johnson).

Even though you can tell some locations are clearly CGI, the show’s settings are creative in design and mood. The production design reflects the characters’ desolation and despair. While abandoned cities have tipped over skyscrapers with vines growing around them, open landscapes and forests look unaffected by the outbreak in an uncanny way. There are also gray, depressing military quarantine zones that immediately emulate hopelessness.

Left to right: Joel (Pedro Pascal), Tess (Anna Torv) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) explore an abandoned building. Contributed photo by Warner Media.

Handheld and close-up camera shots bring out the realism and personal touch a show like this needs, keeping the cinematography simple and effective. It’s a vital part of expressing this world’s grim reality. However, since almost every single shot in the entire show is done handheld, the shaky cameras get a bit annoying after a while.

As a video game adaptation, plotlines from “Part I” fit into season one’s episodic structure extremely well. Story beats from most episodes are executed and paced as perfectly as they could be, giving them enough time to flesh out their importance while still being riveting and intense. In some cases, storylines are altered and developed better than they were in the game, especially the Bill and Frank episode.

Ellie (Bella Ramsey) sits in an overgrown area. Contributed photo by Warner Media.

Although some episodes could feel formulaic (ex. Joel and Ellie repeatedly enter new locations and meet people who end up horribly dying), they’re still important to developing Joel and Ellie’s characters. Even the most mundane moments have dramatic weight. Scenes  dedicated to Joel and Ellie talking to each other build their chemistry and create levity, without feeling jarring or out-of-place after witnessing many tragic scenes.

The season is perfectly paced and constructed, placing in flashback episodes at the best times to give characters and events a deeper meaning. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the finale, which awkwardly squeezes major segments from the end of “Part I” into one episode.

There should’ve been more time dedicated to the first part of the finale with Joel and a traumatized Ellie rekindling their connection, especially since its melancholic tone was definitely necessary for that point in the story. After everything the past eight episodes slowly built up, the finale rushes through the game’s climax in 20 minutes, even though it’s supposed to be the story’s saddest and most disturbing moment.

A run-down building with the phrase “When you’re lost in the darkness look for the light” painted on it. Contributed photo by Warner Media.

The awkward execution makes the season less impactful in hindsight, as if everything Joel and Ellie survived was for a lackluster ending. It’s not like they had to cut it for time because the first episode was feature-length and the finale was only 43 minutes. If needed, I’m sure they could’ve afforded a tenth episode considering the source material’s popularity.

It’s also strange how there were only a couple cold opens, since they were a fantastic and well-executed idea. The first two episodes opened with worldbuilding scenes that showed how the outbreak could’ve happened and established an eerie atmosphere. But then the other episodes lacked cold opens, except for one awkwardly placed in the finale.

Despite the underwhelming ending, HBO’s “The Last of Us” is an incredible series that adapts almost everything from ”Part I” extremely well. It’s great for longtime fans, but also perfectly accessible to newcomers like myself who never played the game. Seeing how Druckman and Mazin improved the story of “Part I” by appropriately adding and changing storylines, there’s hope that they’ll fix valid criticisms of “Part II” in the next season and improve on it as well.

Season one of “The Last of Us” is now streaming on HBO Max and is rated TV-MA.

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Ethan Tarantella
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