‘The Last of Us’ Isn’t Playing Your Game — How to Watch an Adaptation

HBO’s hit series continues to be judged against the heralded video game it’s based on, but that approach often misses the point of adaptations.

(Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” through Episode 6.)

TV, like a movie, will teach you how to watch it. From pacing and structure to style and humor, television builds a relationship with its audience not just through the story its telling, but how it chooses to tell that story. Sometimes it’s a cozy kinship, like with a medical procedural or multi-cam sitcom where the genre’s tried-and-true formula ensures an easy viewing experience. Other shows ask you to work a little harder; they set their own rules, often breaking from convention in order to invite closer inspection and earn your full attention.

But whether it comes from David E. Kelley or David Lynch, the best TV puts everything you need onscreen — and adaptations are no different. The original source material might be copied, word-for-word, or it may only serve as inspiration for a near-total re-conception; it could be referenced in obscure easter eggs as a reward for studious viewers, or it could all but disappear as a fresh story springs forth. TV, especially, encourages the latter option, given it’s typically told over several years and several dozen, if not hundreds, of hours.

“The Last of Us” is the latest TV adaptation to take off. Co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann’s HBO drama is six episodes into its nine-episode debut season, and the good people of the internet — as they’re wont to do — have been busy picking apart every second. Such excavations have led to magnificent discoveries, but they’ve also unearthed horrors as unsettling as a sinkhole filled with hundreds of not-zombies — namely, frightful misunderstandings of what adaptations owe their audiences. Episodes of the series are judged against scenes from the game, characters are compared to their Playstation counterparts, and conclusions are drawn based on the belief that what happened in the game will play out the same way in the series.

That “The Last of Us” has been labeled a “faithful” adaptation can encourage these (mis)readings. On the one hand, of course it’s faithful: Druckmann created the original Naughty Dog video game, which was hailed for its innovative approach to narrative, and that same narrative makes it readily adaptable for television. But that doesn’t mean HBO’s “The Last of Us” is meant to be a mirror image of the game. It shouldn’t. Most adaptations shouldn’t. So as we enter the home stretch of Season 1, it’s time to remember the point of adaptations in general and, in doing so, acknowledge that Mazin and Druckmann aren’t merely playing the game again.

Don’t Just Look for Differences — Learn the Language

Before we break down one of TV’s most successful adaptations to date, let’s briefly look at a less successful one. “Kindred,” the TV show, didn’t work for most people. Reviews were mixed, buzz was hard to come by, and FX canceled the series less than seven weeks after Hulu dropped all eight episodes at once. Its cultural impact stands in stark opposition to the book on which it’s based. Octavia E. Butler’s acclaimed novel remains well-read more than 40 years after its initial printing — a staple in classrooms and a favorite among scholars.

Based on this information alone, it should come as no surprise the book and the series are vastly different. The show sets its modern events in 2016, rather than 1979. The protagonist’s love interest is downgraded from a husband to a one-night-stand. There are new characters and a major alteration to the plot. All of these changes could be, and likely were, jarring for viewers who remembered the book, and alterations to a beloved, respected, or simply familiar story are often first met with suspicion: “How could this new version know better than the original, which I already know and trust?” Changes to the initial narrative don’t guarantee dismissal, just as fealty fails to ensure acceptance, but what’s critical about “Kindred” is how showrunner Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins prepares his audience for the show’s substantive shifts in the very first shot.

“Kindred,” the novel, starts with Dana waking up in a hospital and discovering her arm has been amputated, before Butler jumps back in time to explain how it happened. “Kindred,” the series, employs a similar in media res opening, but director Janicza Bravo begins by panning down to Dana’s intact hand. The next shot shows her laying on the floor, hand and arm still very much attached to her body. It’s a relatively subtle signal, but a signal nonetheless — and Jacobs-Jenkins isn’t done. The premiere is loaded with information meant to assure wary viewers that the filmmakers know what they’re changing and, more importantly, they know why they’re doing it. (Soraya McDonald wrote an excellent essay for Andscape that starts with a separate example serving the same purpose.)

The Last of Us Bella Ramsey HBO adaptation

Bella Ramsey in “The Last of Us”

Courtesy of Liane Hentscher / HBO

“The Last of Us” makes a similarly declarative change in its opening scene. Joel and Ellie, the game’s two leads, are nowhere to be found. Neither are the “clickers” or other Infected. Instead, two ’60s era epidemiologists discuss their greatest fears on a talk show. The first outlines a worst-case scenario in which an airborne virus, “something similar to influenza,” spreads rapidly across the globe, getting everyone sick all at once. But the second (played by John Hannah) dismisses that eerily familiar yet purely speculative pandemic. What keeps him up at night isn’t a new strain of the flu; it’s a new strain of fungus. With a virus, he says, “millions of people may die, as in an actual war, but in the end, we always win.” With a fungus, “there are no treatments (…) no cures — it’s not even possible to make them.” So if that scenario plays out? “We lose.”

Befitting a series with plenty on its mind, there’s a lot going on here. Treated as foreshadowing, it helps set up the apocalyptic events about to play out. As a wink to the show’s origins, the scene sets the stakes via the assumed outcomes of most games, winning and losing, while also nudging the audience to think outside those terms. You’re told right from the start that there’s no way to treat a fungus like this, so maybe “The Last of Us” isn’t really about the search for a cure.

Taking that train of thought a step further, the opening also implies “The Last of Us” isn’t an allegory for any one thing. It’s not a coincidence that the first scientist’s description sounds very close to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second scientist waves it off as beside the point — an acknowledgement and a warning. “The Last of Us,” the game, came out 10 years ago, so it couldn’t have been conceived as a metaphor for a pandemic that hadn’t yet happened. The show, though, will inevitably be seen that way. Time passes. Context shifts. Acknowledging as much is a critical aspect of a successful adaptation because it shows respect for the viewer. Rather than presume everyone watching will take the story one way, it confidently steers them down a designated path and, in doing so, cautions them to “make presumptions at your own risk.”

Such a prominent addition, right from the jump, helps distinguish the adaptation from the original. It tips off viewers who are familiar with the game that more changes are coming, and even as the series’ story starts to follow the game’s, it continues establishing its own identity. Episode 2 starts with another flashback, this time to Jakarta circa 2003, where another fungal expert emphasizes our hopeless fight against the infection. The scene isn’t part of the game either, but it helps build a structural pattern for “The Last of Us” episodes — a pattern of flashbacks that’s subverted and expanded in Episode 3.

The Last of Us Episode 7 Storm Reid adaptation

Storm Reid and Bella Ramsey in “The Last of Us”

Courtesy of Liane Hentscher / HBO

Treat TV Shows Like TV Shows, Not Recreations of Something Else

The much-discussed “Long, Long Time” is the first “Last of Us” episode that doesn’t start with a flashback. Rather, it’s built around one. Episode 3 starts with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) before pivoting to Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). Again, we travel back to the early days of the outbreak, only this time, we stick with our previously unseen protagonists until their story connects with Joel and Ellie’s in the present. We see how Bill started off as a loner survivalist, preserving his home for years until Frank stumbles toward his fence, and the two begin a relationship. Over years together, they grow and Bill changes. He leaves Joel a letter explaining as much, which brings the story back to the main plot.

Much of the discussion around Episode 3 (aside from the bigoted review bombing) focused on how it breaks from Joel and Ellie’s journey. Enough people mislabeled it a bottle episode that one frustrated critic felt the need to create a new term for episodes that significantly depart from their serialized stories. (Departure episodes! Great name! Let’s use it!) Others simply swooned over the sudden pivot to a post-apocalyptic love story. Still more audience members were bothered by what they saw as pointless, saccharine Emmy bait — an episode imitating the behavior of other prestige TV shows without earning its ambitious departure.

“Saccharine” is a matter of perspective, but “pointless” isn’t. Whether the argument hinges on “Long, Long Time” failing to stand on its own or that the show “misinterpreted” its own story because it’s not following the same path as the game, the mistake is the same: You’re refusing to meet the series on its own terms. Episode 3 could certainly be understood on its own, but it was never meant to be seen that way. Joel and Ellie’s scenes aren’t mindless filler; they matter, both to what the two leads have already been through and what they’re about to experience. Pre-flashback discussions center on how the fungus mutated, helping to dispel any lingering curiosity about what caused the apocalypse and steer focus back to the characters. At the episode’s end, we see Joel embrace his mission: He’s not going to pawn Ellie off on someone else. He’s going to take her with him. He’s going to assume the parental duties he’s refused to consider since his daughter died.

Those are important facets going forward, and Episode 3 is just as substantive thematically. So much of Bill and Frank’s story is about making a life instead of only living. Frank teaches Bill the value of connecting with others and engaging in the world around him. He keeps a nice home, rehabilitates the yard and surrounding town, paints portraits, and plays music. Pragmatism and romanticism, self-preservation and altruism, learning to love yourself and sharing that love with others — these are values the series examines through Joel and Ellie, too (among other characters), and not just in one isolated episode.

But the depths of Episode 3 only really becomes clear once you get through Episode 5, “Endure and Survive.” In “Long, Long Time,” love brings people together. It heals them. Bill and Frank’s love changes them, and by episode’s end, we start to see how Joel and Ellie’s love might change them, too. It can heal Joel’s broken heart and end Ellie’s enduring isolation. When they drive off into the sunset listening to Linda Ronstadts, there’s hope in how their story may echo Bill and Frank’s. But Episode 5 argues there’s an equal chance love can have the opposite effect. Kathleen, the leader of Kansas City’s rebel uprising played by Melanie Lynskey, is a completely new addition. She did not exist in the game, even if parts of her story intersect with parts of the game’s. She lost her brother and never recovers from that loss. All she can think about is finding the person to blame for her sibling’s death and exacting her revenge. It consumes her — eventually, in more ways than one.

Love, in the context of Episode 3, is pure and good. But in Episode 5, it’s contaminated and evil. Both entries embody each interpretation fully. It’s why “Long, Long Time” is so sweet, earnest, and direct, and why “Endure and Survive” is so bleak, challenging, and unrelenting. Taken as two sides to the same coin, what they don’t tell us is which fate awaits Joel and Ellie. Will their love save them or doom them? Are they on Bill and Frank’s path or Kathleen’s? Maybe it’s somewhere in between, but the point is that these episodes work together. Episodic storytelling is the foundation of television as a medium, but viewers got so caught up in the idea that Episode 3 was its own thing that they neglected to consider how it connects to the rest of the season — that even when its characters are sequestered to a single episode, they could still set up events to come.

Having seen the full season, I assure you Episodes 3 and 5 have more to give. I share this not to spoil “The Last of Us” for anyone, but to keep you, dear readers, from spoiling it for yourselves. Adaptations aren’t meant to be mirror images of what came before. Where’s the fun in that, for the viewer or the storyteller? Why not evolve? Why not adapt with the times? Why not venture into new territory, instead of re-sodding old ground? Stories can evolve along with the people telling them, and Druckmann has been sharing that evolution from the very first frames of the series.

So for the rest of “The Last Of Us” — and all the future adaptations with enough courage to push the conversation forward — why not let the storytellers tell their story? Trust that the answers will come; that you don’t need a game walk-through or a book’s Cliff’s Notes to explain things to you; that no outside information will prepare you as well as the show itself does, scene by scene, from beginning to end.

In other words, stop trying to play TV like a game. Maybe then you’ll realize that’s what “The Last of Us” decided to do a long time ago.

“The Last of Us” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The Season 1 finale premieres March 12.

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