A Review of HBO’s The Last of Us: How to do an Adaptation Right

February 2023 Issue


Max Spencer, Writer

It’s no secret that HBO’s newest series, The Last of Usan adaptation of the 2013 game of the same name by Naughty Dog Studios—is looking to be one of the best shows of the year, if not the decade. Both fans and critics are raving about the series’ superb writing and exceptional performances, while fans of the original game especially praise the series for its fantastic adaptation of its source material. Following the abhorrent messes that were the Halo and Resident Evil series, both released last year, a good videogame adaptation is refreshing. The “videogame adaptation curse,” a fixation of critics, seems to be broken, but was it something that even existed in the first place? No. 

Contrary to popular belief among critics, there have been many good videogame adaptations of movies and television over the past 20 years. The list is quite long, but some highlights include Cyperpunk Edgerunners, Tron Legacy, and the Sonic movies. Yes, most videogame adaptations are bad, and that trend is the reason for this so-called “curse.” But the idea that videogames cannot be successfully adapted across mediums is demonstrably false. 

So why are the majority of video game adaptations bad? The answer is the same reason that the vast majority of adaptations of other mediums from their source material to films and television are also bad or less than memorable: corporate greed. You may question that statement, but one only needs to look into the endless pile of Hollywood adaptations to find that most adaptations, regardless of the medium of their source material, fail to hit the mark. 

This phenomenon is nowhere else more evident than in adaptations of YA novels. Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, A Wrinkle in Time, and Ender’s Game: all good books/series with bad to terrible Hollywood adaptations. Each is an example of Hollywood taking any intellectual properties it can find, sucking the creativity from them, and regurgitating them onto the market where they make millions in ticket sales from uncaring members of the general audience. So many people say creativity in Hollywood is dead, it’s not, but it’s only barely alive. 

So most adaptations are uncreative and bad, but why, beyond the simple answer of Hollywood’s endless corporate greed, do they fail as adaptations, and where does The Last of Us succeed? Firstly, and most importantly, in opposition to the industry norm, the team behind The Last of Us series comprises TV industry natives as well as the creatives behind the original game. It feels like it would be a no-brainer to give the creatives who made a property successful in the first place some control or oversight over an adaptation. Yet, studios often neglect to do so. Bizarrely, creative teams behind games are often not involved in their properties’ adaptations to film and television, which allows the writers behind the adaptations to make baffling decisions. In modern Hollywood, where studios see video games’ success as a threat to Hollywood’s entertainment supremacy, writers can become resentful of or demeaning towards games. HBO, however, made the pivotal decision to give Neil Druckmann, co-creator of the original game, a chief creative position as series Co-Creator along with Craig Mazin, an avid fan of the original game. This decision has clearly paid off, as the work Druckmann and Mazin have done for the show is already showing its quality.  

The Last of Us TV series doesn’t only avoid the trappings of worse adaptations, though. The Last of Us employs a technique used by the best adaptations of any media, which is to not only adapt its source material but meaningfully expand on it. A chief example of this is the series’ third episode, an otherwise “filler” episode that follows minor characters but meaningfully develops the world and explores the emotional consequences of the previous episode. 

All that is to say, you should watch HBO’s The Last of Us. You can catch new episodes weekly on Sundays at 8pm CT on HBO.