Review | HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ does original video game justice

HBO’s “The Last of Us,” adapted from the original video game released in 2013, appeals to gamers and non-gamers alike with incredible storytelling, flawless performances, and awesome visuals.


Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Pedro Pascal, right, at the premiere of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” during SXSW Film Festival at the Paramount Theatre on March 12, 2022, in Austin, Texas.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

When you’re lost in the darkness, start watching “The Last of Us” — the show absolutely shines. 

On March 12, the season finale of the show “The Last of Us” premiered on HBO, bringing the first installment of the live-adapted video game to a resounding close. 

The video game took the world by storm when it was originally released in 2013 by Naughty Dog Studios. Written and directed by Neil Druckman, the post-apocalyptic story of the game revolves around a smuggler who is tasked with guiding a young girl across the country and the relationship they forge along the way.

Playing as the main characters, gamers face a multitude of physical obstacles — mainly the zombie-like humans called “Infected” that are controlled by mutated fungi. There are also groups of hunters who shoot to kill anyone in their path, and war-torn terrain that players must pick their way through while occasionally pausing to appreciate the game’s beautiful apocalyptic scenery. 

Though the game is not dictated by a player’s own choices, it leads gamers through a series of complex ethical dilemmas that challenges them to empathize with characters and understand that no choice is easy or obvious.  

“The Last of Us” was awarded Best Video Game of the Year in 2013. The sequel “The Last of Us Part II” received the same award in 2020. Since its release, Part I has secured a steadfast fan base. 

Though I did not play the first installment of the game until 2021, I watched the play-through of both games online in 2020 after the highly controversial sequel was released. I have been an avid lover and supporter of both games ever since. 

So, when I found out that HBO was adapting the game into a TV show, I was beyond excited. But I was just as overwhelmingly concerned that the production would neither measure up to the video game nor stay true to its story. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. 

The title characters of the video game Joel and Ellie are played by actors Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey respectively, both of whom have performed in a variety of other roles, including those of Prince Oberon and Lyanna Mormont in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

I was thrilled to see the cast when it was revealed in 2022, but other fans were less enthusiastic about Ramsey playing Ellie because the actor does not bear an exact resemblance to the character. 

If Ramsey’s performance as Ellie in the show has not squashed all doubts about their ability to carry the character, then I don’t know what will. From their first appearance onscreen, Ramsey easily captured the vivacious essence of Ellie, a tough yet naive fourteen-year-old with a slight attitude problem. 

Throughout the game, Ramsey’s portrayal brought Ellie to life and tears in the eyes of audiences everywhere, with emotionally gut-wrenching scenes and bright spots of humor in an otherwise dark atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Pascal flawlessly stepped into the shoes of Joel, a hardened smuggler who struggles with a personal loss that closes him off to the world until Ellie renews a sense of love and hope within him. 

Even if Pascal did not already resemble the video game character in both appearance and voice, his performance as Joel makes it seem impossible that anyone could have played the character better. His portrayal emanates the conflicting strong and soft energies of Joel, earning love and sympathy from audiences.

Together, Pascal and Ramsey are an incredible duo whose chemistry allows the bond that Joel and Ellie forge throughout the game to shine during the show as each provides for the other what has been missing in their lives. 

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Thanks to the creative leadership of Druckman and show creator Craig Mazin, the show only ever strayed from the game to add depth and explanation to the story. Adapting the game into a series allowed for such liberties to be taken, but that freedom was never overstepped. 

A particular divergence from the original storyline is the heartbreaking third episode that follows the life of partners Bill and Frank, played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett respectively, who fall in love after the world has ended.

The game’s most pivotal and powerful scenes were respectfully followed in the show nearly word-for-word and shot-for-shot. This approach satisfies gamers and non-gamers alike, who are enjoying the same story, just through a different medium. It also makes certain scenes that gamers are already anticipating hit that much closer to home. 

Though Bill and Frank are characters from the game, their relationship is never explored as deeply as it is in the show. In this case, I believe even gamers appreciated the added story.  

Furthermore, the series itself is simply stunning to watch. The detailed sets are almost identical to the game’s design and vivid in both color and resolution. Just as vivid but far more terrifying is the makeup for the Infected, the fast and ruthless creatures I didn’t think could get any scarier until the show.

This series was executed brilliantly and has more than done justice to the video game. With a confirmed second season on the way that is expected to closely follow “The Last of Us: Part II,” it is clearly beloved by most audiences, and I have faith this reception will endure and survive upon the second season’s release.