The first episode of “The Last of Us” was released on HBO Max Jan. 15. From Craig Mazin, creator of the hugely successful mini-series “Chernobyl,” and Neil Druckmann, lead writer of the popular video game of the same name, comes this long-awaited adaptation.
“The Last of Us,” set in a post-apocalyptic United States following the outbreak of a fungal pandemic, sets Joel, a hardened war veteran dealing with the demons of his past, on an epic journey across the desolate country with Ellie, a 14-year-old harboring a dark secret. This journey will pit the unlikely duo against vicious cadres of desperate survivors and packs of mindless Infected, the zombified humans that now roam the American wasteland, as Joel and Ellie make their way westward. This first episode explores the events leading up to the pandemic’s outbreak and the aftermath twenty years later. Joel and Ellie must begin their trek by escaping from the oppressive military regime known as FEDRA, which occupies a massive quarantine zone in the ruins of Boston.
There exists a general understanding within the film and entertainment industry that video game-to-film adaptations do not work. Out of the myriad attempts over the years, only a few adaptations stand out as good or even mediocre. For many adaptations, the issue lies in the interactive element inherent in video games not translating well to the big or small screen.
In the weeks leading up to the release of “The Last of Us” on HBO Max, fans of the source material understandably bore such fears. The game on which it is based is beloved among the gaming community for its riveting characters, world and, most importantly, story. Thankfully, based on this first episode, it can be said that “The Last of Us” is an excellent adaptation of developer Naughty Dog’s beloved game. With an opening sequence that is almost shot-for-shot and line-for-line identical to the game, missing out on none of the tension or suspense, and a cast of well-realized characters, the series is so far faithful and respectful to the source material. It even goes so far as to include additional tidbits of worldbuilding that flesh out story beats, such as the fungal pandemic that kicks the central drama into motion — additions that do not feel at all out of place.
The production value is likewise strong, with impressive set pieces and engaging cinematography. The aforementioned opening sequence is shot largely with a shaky camera, adding to the claustrophobia and frenzy it seeks to instill in the unfolding chaos at the pandemic’s outbreak.
Pedro Pascal makes for a fully realized Joel. He succeeds in portraying the character’s grizzled nature and hinting toward a softer side in the scenes he shares with Joel’s daughter Sarah, played by the likewise impressive Nico Parker. “Game of Thrones” veteran Bella Ramsey does well as Ellie, though it remains to be seen if Ramsey can nail both the subtle nuances and boisterous particularities of the character. Thankfully, her screen time will only increase in the coming weeks.
Overall, this first taste of the long-anticipated “The Last of Us” offers a well-rounded piece of drama on several fronts. If there exists an infection in video-game-to-film adaptations, “The Last of Us” seems poised to cure it.