‘The Last of Us’ HBO Adaptation Goes Way Beyond the PlayStation Game

For writer Craig Mazin, the scariest thing in the The HBO TV series The Last of Us is not Clickers, Bloaters or any other horror the legendary Sony PlayStation game on which the series is based. This is the moment one scientist realizes that a fungal brain infection will turn most of the world’s population into savages. This scene appeared in a flashback recently created for the show, and was not seen in the game or its continuation in 2020.

“It’s scary for me,” Mazin told me in a Zoom interview ahead of the show’s Jan. 15 premiere. HBO Max. “It justifies everything, and the more we can make the periphery feel real, the more the center will feel real.”

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Mazin applied the same curiosity a real disaster when he created The acclaimed HBO miniseries Chernobyl in 2019. For The Last of Us, the flashbacks and pseudoscientific source of the infection came from talking to showrunner Neil Druckmann, who wrote the game and is also creative director and co-president of developer Naughty Dog. He relished the opportunity to expand the Last of Us universe beyond what we see in the games with an expert reaction to this apocalyptic revelation.

“Not only is it terrifying to hear the scientist say it’s over, but the moment she admits it to herself and sees the drama on her face is unique to this [adaptation] which I’m so glad we can show,” said Druckmann.

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The flashbacks aren’t the only change fans of the game will notice – the timeline has been changed so that the outbreak took place in 2003 (rather than the game’s 2013), with the post-territorial narrative taking place in 2023 (instead of 2033). Because the game took place in the year of its release, Mazin and Druckmann agreed that the chronological change made sense as it did not fundamentally change the story.

“If I’m watching a show in 2023 and it’s set in 2043, it’s a little less real. I thought it might be interesting to just say, ‘Hey, look, in this parallel universe, this is happening right now.’ ‘ So it was really just about helping people connect a little bit more,” Mazin said.

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“Really, it didn’t change much other than giving us a slightly different palette of props, set design and car choices. Interestingly, as we progress through the series, we continue to find new locations and new relics of the old world, [always] bring back the 2003 vibe.”

Driven by grief

Further grounding the story is the relatable human drama at its core. In the nine episodes of the first season, we follow smuggler Joel Miller, who has been charged with following the cheerful teenager Ellie across an empire (we won’t say why, to avoid spoilers). The couple is played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.

Pedro Pascal holds a flashlight in a dark space in The Last of Us.

Pedro Pascal says Joel is “shaped by loss”.


Pascal, who you may know from Coronation Games and The Mandaloriansaid the tragic loss Joel suffered at the start of the outbreak continues to drive him 20 years later.

“He’s completely driven by trauma and everything he does, for better or worse, is shaped by that loss and not experiencing that kind of loss again. It’s something, unfortunately, so many of us can relate to,” Pascal told me on Zoom .

“It’s amazing to step into an adaptation of a beloved source material that has such an emotional human story at the center, to make it even more painful. Which we obviously love, as an audience … we’re masochistic.”

Student in Game of Thrones Ramsey noted that Ellie sees Joel’s pain, which leads to the two forming a bond during their journey.

Ellie is sitting in a room with grass on the floor when Tess talks to her in The Last of Us.

The mysterious teenager Ellie (left) is at the center of the story, and characters like Tess (right) quickly learn how important she is.


“Ellie is aware that there’s something wrong with this guy – there’s more to him, he’s not just a pissed off arsehole as a result,” the actor said. “She sees a shared experience; Ellie has lost a very important person in her life [as well]. When you see someone who has gone through something like that too, you want to connect with them [even though] Joel is very resistant to that.”

More than survival

The duo are searching for Joel’s idealistic brother Tommy, who has found purpose in trying to fix this scary world. He is played by Gabriel Luna, known for his roles in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Terminator: Dark Fate.

A worried Tommy holds a rifle and looks off camera in The Last of Us.

Characters like Tommy find new purpose in a broken world.


“He longs for what his brother has in the beginning, which is a family — to plant a seed and watch it grow,” Luna told me in a video chat. “He’s looking for a world where you can live with nature and it’s no longer actively trying to kill you all the time. He believes we can truly return to it.”

The Fireflies, a group of rebels pushing against the military’s harsh dictatorship of the survivors, seem to be spearheading the return to civilization. They are led by Marlene, who is played by Sons of Anarchy and The Flight Attendant actor Merle Dandridge. She told me that the Fireflies represent “hope” as they seek ways to regain their autonomy.

Marlene takes a gunshot wound to the stomach as her ally watches in The Last of Us.

Merle Dandridge (tv) plays Marlene in the game and the show.


This casting will please fans, as she also voiced Marlene in the games. (Joel and Ellie actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson too attend in unofficial roles.) She also confirmed that the work she did for the 2013 original proved useful when she was returning to the role on the show, but the legendary status the series achieved in the years since opened up new avenues to explore.

“I reviewed the preparations. And checked with Neil to make sure I was right, because over time your memory can destroy the actual facts,” she said. “The great gift of having original material that is so loved, played and aired everywhere is that you can go back, look at it and [immerse yourself].”


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