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The Last of Us episode one – A faithful adaptation that goes beyond the gamepad

Has HBO’s The Last of Us TV series finally lifted the supposed curse looming over video game adaptations? Whether filming a summer blockbuster or hit television series, leaning on a popular video game IP has produced mixed results in the past. While more recent efforts such as Netflix’s animated Castlevania and League of Legends: Arcane have both managed to thread that needle, it’s a much tougher feat for live action – just look at last year’s Halo TV show…

Overall, episode one of HBO’s The Last of Us is a great opening chapter that’s well worth watching as it serves both fans of the Naughty Dog franchise and people looking for more big budget, prestige television to watch.

Spoiler Warning: While this is not a blow-by-blow recap of the episode, we discuss certain plot points and changes made between the video game and HBO TV adaptation.

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Of course, what most people want to know is just how faithful the show is, and it does stick closely to what you will have played through in the original game, but also makes changes to better suit a TV audience – new scenes have been added to flesh characters out, for example. At the same time there are dozens of easter eggs and many camera angles and shots that could be mistaken for photo mode snaps from The Last of Us: Part I on PS5.

This first episode covers the first two chapters of the game, introducing the main cast while delivering a gripping recreation of the “Hometown” prologue. One of its only weaknesses is a slow start that tries to do more scene setting with a cold open that actually skips all the way back to a 1960s talk show and give us more time with Joel’s family before the outbreak truly hits home – in classic zombie apocalypse fashion, you start to see things going wrong in the background, building tension until the main characters realise what’s happening. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but the original game’s opening is more immediate and hits harder, using narrative devices that just wouldn’t work or translate to television.

The Last of Us HBO –Joel with a flashlight

Photograph: HBO

Pedro Pascal is a very busy man, helming not one, but two, of the biggest shows of 2023. The star of The Mandalorian puts in an effortless performance as Joel, who undergoes a harrowing 20-year transition as we cut from that heart-wrenching opening to a modern-day quarantine zone. A lot has happened in that time and, as in the video game, we’re left guessing as to what Joel’s had to do to survive up until now.

It’s here that we’re introduced to Anna Torv’s tough-talking Tess. Again, those who have played the original game already know what awaits her, though we’re still interested to see how the writers will explore her backstory and relationship with Joel. It’s clear the two of them have been engaged in all kinds of shady dealings to stay alive.

Then there’s Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey (another Game of Thrones alumni). Offering her own spin to the character, it’s easy to forget how fierce, naive, and overwhelmed Ellie was at the start of her and Joel’s saga. Through a chaotic meeting that brings the rebel Fireflies into the mix, Ellie, Joel and Tess set out from the quarantine zone and into the very different dangers that await them outside. It builds up to a climactic moment in which we learn of Ellies secret, and we quickly realise what implications it has for the other characters and the wider post-apocalyptic setting.

The Last of Us HBO – Ellie & Merle

Photograph: HBO

While there are no Clickers in this episode, we still get a good look at the infected. Somehow, they’re even more terrifying here than when they’re trying to hunt you down in the games, with hair-like tendrils extending from twitching jaws, launching themselves at anything with a pulse. We can’t wait to see how the show adapts a number of game’s more memorable enemy encounters with increasingly putrid costume designs.

It’s a strong first showing and one that holds plenty of easter eggs and tiny details The Last of Us fans have already been analysing. There are also elements we haven’t touched upon, including certain side characters, the incredible set designs, and soundtrack, all of which mesh together in a way that feels wholly authentic to the TLOU universe.

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