The Last of Us was the first video game to make me cry. And so it is a thrill to report that its heart-shredding mix of melancholy, melodrama and postapocalyptic dread has been faithfully transposed to television in HBO’s much-hyped new adaptation.
Both game and series – the latter debuts on Sky Atlantic on Monday, January 16th – tap into the familiar milieu of the zombie thriller. It’s a genre that has already been flogged to (un)death by the dreadful Walking Dead. But The Last of Us, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay, elevates the trope-heavy premise of a society besieged by ravenous hordes. It does so by grafting it to a story of two lost souls finding a connection amid the darkness.
They are Joel (Pascal), a grizzled middle-aged man whose moral compass was shattered when society collapsed, and Ellie (Ramsay), a teenage girl with a special gift. To reveal more would be to spoil. Suffice to say that, though The Last of Us is in the first instance about zombies laying waste to humanity, it is also about family and the centrality of human connection.
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As the PTSD-adjacent Joel, Pascal brings a bedraggled Everyman quality that feels like a new trick for The Mandalorian/Game of Thrones actor. Ramsay – whose big break was also on Game of Thrones, where she cameoed as a precocious noble – is equally convincing as Ellie. She is a kid who grew up in a world without rules or meaning and who strikes up an instant buddy-movie dynamic with Joel.
Video-game adaptations can be hit and miss. You might remember the appalling Super Mario Brothers, from 1993. But in 2020 Netflix released the fantastic League of Legends spin-off Arcane. Factor in the excellent Castlevania (also on Netflix), and even the okayish Angelia Jolie Tomb Raider movies, and it is clear that the idea of games as unadaptable is already long debunked.
The Last of Us will delight fans of the source material. The best scene in the 90-minute pilot – a terrifying drive through a city plunged into chaos – comes straight from the first 15 minutes of the game. That said, the showrunners, Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (who created The Last of Us for developer Naughty Dog), are careful not to lean too heavily into the story’s digital origins. You never feel you are watching a video game that has been mindlessly replicated for television.
They instead re-create the game’s chilling vision of a dystopian United States, with results that suggest Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men by way of Shaun of the Dead. This future shock US lives under the heels of the military, the countryside stalked by zombies (infected with a deadly form of fungus) while pro-democracy rebels bomb the cities. It’s a grim, grey world that feels fully fleshed out and lived in.
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But what truly makes the show is the father-daughter dynamic between Pascal and Ramsay. They are the beating heart of a prestige-television epic that stokes a sense of wonder even as it reduces your insides to jelly. The zombie genre of the video-game adaptation has been brought gloriously to life.