The zombie genre has been done and done again, but the new Last of Us TV adaptation is hoping to bring some life to the undead genre.
The upcoming The Last of Us TV series is set to launch on HBO on January 15. The show features Pedro Pascal, known for his work on Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian. Pascal will be playing the popular character of Joel. There’s no Last of Us without Ellie, who is played by another Game of Thrones star, Bella Ramsey. Behind the show, there’s the creator of the HBO show Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, and writer Neil Druckmann, the man behind the original story.
Video game adaptations are something we are seeing more frequently now but their track record leaves much to be desired. While some hold true to the games they are adapted from, others have left fans with much disappointment. It’s no surprise that Mazin has constantly been asked questions regarding the challenges of adapting a video game to TV.
Bringing games to TV
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Mazin revealed how to make a great video game adaptation saying “The way to break the video game curse is to adapt the best video game story ever — not by a little, but by a lot… So I flat-out cheated.”
The reason why The Last of Us has such potential for TV isn’t just because it’s a good game, it’s because it has a great story. A story that shows that video games can have deep characters and tell an impactful story. The kind that has you thinking long after the credits roll.
Neil Druckmann tells the story of the original pitch which happened in 2004 where the task was to pitch a zombie story for a computer class to a judge. This judge was none other than the father of zombie films, George Romero. No pressure then. The pitch consisted of a tale where a man who had lost his daughter, teamed up with a girl who lost her father. Unfortunately, Romero wasn’t a fan at the time and something else was picked.
Not the last of The Last of Us
As we well know the story doesn’t end there. Druckmann went on to work for Naughty Dog, working his way up the ranks to co-lead designer and writer. Then game franchise Uncharted became a hit. The same Uncharted which has now also become a movie adaption featuring Tom Holland. The success of the Uncharted games allowed Druckmann the freedom of choosing the next project. An opportunity to return to the idea his professor pitched to Romero.
While The Last of Us may be an apocalyptic game, that’s not the main focus. At the core of this game is a story, one of a bond between two people. Everything else, the zombie-like creatures, the apocalyptic world is there as a background, the playground where this story can unfold.
Druckmann said they “wanted to do the opposite of Resident Evil” , one of the most iconic video game zombie franchises. One that was rooted in horror and along the way has seen more action-packed titles and an eventual return to its horror routes. These games are full of boss fights and enemy variety. Something that Druckmann says he loves but The Last of Us was a different kind of zombie experience, one that is about “intimate relationships.”
Druckmann noted that the themes would explore “the unconditional love a parent feels for their child and the beautiful things that could come out of that and the really horrible things that could come out of that?”
Once the beta version of the game was ready, a video game reviewer played the title, and much like Romero, they didn’t get it. Luckily the wider gaming audience did get it. The game was released on PS3 in 2013 and became the fastest-selling game in years. The Last of Us got a sequel in 2020 which again pushed the boundaries of storytelling and went on to be the most-awarded game in history. Only very recently has this been beaten by FromSoftwares Elden Ring. Naughty Dog announced that The Last of Us franchise has sold more than 37 million copies as of December 2022. So while being turned away by the father of zombies may have been a kick in the face at the time, The Last of Us finally had the platform it deserved.
This success was of course noticed by other media. A movie adaptation with Screen Gems was set to get underway with Sam Raimi looking to direct. This never happened as adapting the first games 15 hours of gameplay into one movie felt like an impossible task. Druckmann was told the movie needed more spectacular set pieces which clashed with the original theme of the character-driven story.
Eventually Druckmann saw HBO’s Chernobyl series. The show’s dark tone, atmospheric tension, and story that had core themes based on survival and a moral journey gave Druckmann a glimpse at what The Last of Us could be like as a TV show.
Making the show happen
A meeting was set up with Mazin who was on board with the idea of an adaption and away they went to pitch the project to HBO drama head Francesa Orsi and producer Carolyn Strauss. Druckmann recalls the experience saying “Craig just launches into the game’s story from the beginning. And I’m like, ‘Do I jump in? And I’m like, ‘What if I do nothing.”
Mazin pitched the heart of the story and left Druckmann stunned “He’s such a good storyteller” Druckmann remarks “I was finding myself emotionally moved by a story that, for all intents and purposes, I shouldn’t be moved by anymore. I realised this is what I got wrong every other time, I didn’t have the right partner.”
With the show given the green light, the showrunners got to work on writing the first season. Then came the important task of casting the characters. The story is focused on two leads, Joel and Ellie. Casting both would be a difficult task, not only because each character needs to be played by someone who can show their complexity but also because they’re characters that are already loved by thousands of fans.
Finding the role of Ellie was a tough task, the role needed to go to someone who was an adult but could realistically portray a 14-year girl. A girl that can be “tough and vulnerable, wise beyond their years, and also have the potential for violence” Druckmann stated. The role of Ellie saw numerous auditions, Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams discussed the role, and Kaitlyn Dever from Booksmart did a table read. However, by the time the series was coming along some of these possible candidates had aged out of the role.
The search continued and eventually, Mazin watched Bella Ramsey’s audition tape and instantly saw Ellie. Druckmann agreed saying “it was like Ellie realised in live action. It didn’t feel like watching an actor.” Ramsey secured the role and the show had its Ellie. Once the casting was announced the internet did what the internet so often does and blew up.
Many of the reactions were negative, fans had idealised who they wanted in the role for years and Ramsey had to deal with backlash that predominantly focused on appearance over performance. Comments that the actor didn’t look like the character swirled the internet with Ramsey saying “I’m aware of all of it. It was my first experience, really, with a lot of negative reactions.” Fortunately, much like Ellie, Ramsey is resilient and has faith in her portrayal of the character. Ramsey commented that “Ellie felt like a character I already had in me. Like the skins that you wear in a video game? She was one of my skins already.”
Casting Joel was another integral piece, Mazin sent Pedro Pascal the script and the actor was instantly intrigued. One issue that did arise however was the worry that Pascal’s current role in The Mandalorian was too similar. One character being the unlikely caretaker of another and going on an adventure together. These issues were eventually put aside, the fact that The Mandalorian is a sci-fi space-themed story where Pascal’s character has his face covered perhaps helped in differentiating the two. The producers behind The Mandalorian gave the actor their permission for the actor to work on essentially a rival project.
With the two leading roles set in stone, the production had got the heart of the show. While the show seemingly has a $100 million budget backing it, its success will lay less in the cinematics and more so in the performance and chemistry between these two characters. The story hangs on their relationship and the dynamic between them. Thousands of fans have already experienced this story and how well it worked between voice actors Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) who both interestingly, have small roles in the series too and can be seen in the trailer.
The heart of the show
HBO’s chairman and CEO Casey Bloys point out that “if those two don’t work, the show doesn’t work. But I think it’s pretty clear from the beginning they’re both incredibly soulful and give extraordinary performances. The love that has to develop between these two characters for you to care was there in spades.”
Fans won’t need to wait much longer to see the highly anticipated series as it airs on January 15. Hopes are high to see a TV adaptation that is faithful to the core themes of the game. While also maybe throwing in some surprises that will even catch fans of the game off guard. As a fan of both games, I for one can’t wait to see it.
More upcoming adaptations will see the Super Mario Bros movie which is set for release early this year. Hideo Kojima’s unique Death Stranding game was also recently announced to be receiving a movie adaptation.