HBO adaptation of ‘The Last of Us’ takes its universe far beyond PlayStation games
For writer Craig Mazin, the scariest thing HBO TV series The Last of Us isn’t it Clickers, Bloaters or any of the other horrors of the legendary Sony PlayStation game it’s based on. It’s the moment a lone scientist realizes that a fungal brain infection will reduce the world’s population to savage cannibals. This scene appears in a newly created flashback for the series — it wasn’t in the 2013 game or its sequel 2020.
“It’s terrifying to me,” Mazin told me during a Zoom panel interview ahead of the show’s Jan. 15 premiere on HBO Max. “It grounds everything, and the more real we can make the peripheral feel, the more real the center will feel.”
Mazin applied this same curiosity to a real disaster when he created Chernobyl, HBO’s acclaimed 2019 miniseries. For The Last of Us, the flashbacks and pseudo-scientific source of infection were derived from a conversation with series co-writer Neil Druckmann, who wrote the game and is also creative director and co-president from developer Naughty Dog. He relished the opportunity to expand the Last of Us universe beyond what we see in games thanks to an expert’s reaction to this apocalyptic reveal.
“Not only is it scary to hear the scientist say it’s over, but the moment she accepts it for herself and sees the drama on her face is something unique for this [adaptation] that I’m so happy that we’re able to show it,” Druckmann said.
The flashbacks aren’t the only change fans of the game will notice – the timeline has been shifted so that the outbreak took place in 2003 (rather than the game in 2013), with the post-apocalyptic narrative occurring in 2023 ( instead of 2033). Because the game was set in the year of its release, Mazin and Druckmann agreed that the timeline repositioning made sense since it didn’t fundamentally change the story.
“If I watch a show in 2023 and it’s set in 2043, it’s just a little less real. I thought it might be interesting to just say, ‘Hey look, in this universe parallel, it’s going well now.’ So it was just about helping people connect a little bit more,” Mazin said.
“In practice, it didn’t change much other than giving us a slightly different palette of props, scenery and car choices. Interestingly, as we progress through the series, we let’s keep finding new places and new relics of the old world, [always] going back to that 2003 vibe.”
Driven by grief
The story relies more on relatable human drama. Over the course of nine episodes of the first season, we follow curmudgeonly smuggler Joel Miller, who has been accused of escorting cheerful teenager Ellie across the post-apocalyptic United States (we won’t say why, to avoid spoilers). The pair is played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
Pascal, whom you may know game of thrones 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 for worse, is shaped by that loss and no longer experiences that kind of loss. It’s something, unfortunately, that so many ‘between us can relate,’ Pascal told me on Zoom.
“It’s amazing to go into an adaptation of a beloved source material that has such an emotional human story at the center, only to make it all the more painful. Which we apparently love, as audience members … we are masochists.”
Former Game of Thrones Companion Ramsey noted that Ellie sees Joel’s pain, which leads them to form a bond during their journey.
“Ellie is aware there’s something about this guy – there’s more to him, he’s not just some grumpy asshole for the sake of it,” the actor said. “She sees a shared experience; Ellie lost a very important person in her life [as well] . When you see someone who’s been through something like this too, you want to connect with them. [even though] Joël is very resistant to it.”
more than survive
The duo search for Joel’s idealistic brother, Tommy, who has found purpose while trying to fix this horrifying world. He is played by Gabriel Luna, known for his roles in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Terminator: Dark Fate.
“He desires what his brother has at the start, which is his family — to plant a seed and watch it grow,” Luna told me over video chat. “He’s looking for a world where you can live with nature, and he’s not actively trying to kill you all the time anymore. He thinks we can really get back to that.”
Apparently spearheading this return to civilization are the Fireflies, a group of rebels who push back against the military’s harsh authoritarian control over the survivors. They are led by Marlene, who is played by Sons of Anarchy and The Flight Attendant actor Merle Dandridge. She told me the fireflies represent “hope” as they search for a way to empower people.
This casting choice will delight fans, since she also voiced Marlene in the games. (Game actors Joel and Ellie, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, also appear in undisclosed roles.) She also confirmed that the work she did for the 2013 original came in handy when she returned to the role on the show, but the legendary status the show had achieved in the years that followed. opened up new avenues to explore.
“I absolutely reviewed the prep. And I checked with Neil to make sure I understood correctly, because over time your memory can erode the actual facts,” she said. “The great gift of having existing source material that is so beloved, widely released, and streamed everywhere is that you can go back, watch it, and [immerse yourself] .”
Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann will reveal more in a companion podcast that will go behind the scenes of the show, HBO said Monday, with podcast episodes dropping each Sunday. It will be hosted by actor Troy Baker, who plays Joel in the games.
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