5 Questions For HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ After Playing ‘Part 1’

Peter Paras delves into expectations for HBO's adaptation of the acclaimed Naughty Dog video game The Last of Us.

It is hard to believe that Naughty Dog’s groundbreaking survivalist horror adventure, The Last of Us, debuted less than a decade ago on June 13, 2013, for the PlayStation 3. Flash forward to June 19, 2020: PS4 owners saw the release of the highly-acclaimed sequel, The Last of Us Part 2. During the height of COVID-19, players immersed themselves in the bleak (seriously bleak) tale of revenge set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a viral pandemic ended civilization. Meme’s featuring plenty of toilet paper and low gas prices in-game served as a fun “if only” contrast to our planet’s very real outbreak. We didn’t suffer at the jaws of fungal clickers trying to kill us but did Joel and Ellie ever have to brave Target for supplies?

That same month it was announced that after several stalled attempts to adapt the award-winning tale into a film, Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), along with the game’s co-creator, Neil Druckmann, inked a deal to develop a live-action series for HBO. By November, HBO had officially green-lit an entire first season. Filming wrapped earlier this year, and the show is set to debut in “early 2023. It stars the Mandalorian himself, Pedro Pascal, as Joel Miller, and Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) as Ellie Williams. All that’s been shown is a few stills and about twenty seconds of footage, which were included in a recent HBO trailer for the network’s slate of upcoming series and films (Footage starts at 1:42).

2023 is a while off, but the game’s developer Naughty Dog recently re-released The Last of Us Part 1 for the PlayStation 5 (a PC version is TBA). Dubbed as not merely a simple remaster (which they did already in 2014), yet not quite a full-blown remake à la 2019’s thrilling Resident Evil 2 Remake, Part 1 aims to not only bring fans of the original back but, more importantly, making playing the original an easier, more state-of-the-art way to experience the now classic story with updated graphics, controls, and a host of accessibility features for newcomers.

Why is this important beyond the fact that the original PS3 game is rough by today’s standards? Heck, even the PS4 Remastered version is just ‘ok’ as far as visual fidelity compared to this generation’s 4K, 60 frames a second, haptic feedback, bells and whistles. Put simply, when Netflix’s The Witcher series debuted a few years back, the game’s developer CD Project Red saw a massive spike in sales for The Witcher 3. For those that loved seeing Henry Cavill kick butt with his crazy long grey hair and even longer steel sword though, the RPG Polish adventure is unforgiving for non-gamers. By contrast, for new fans of The Last of Us world, Part 1 helps to make the experience much closer to Part 2’s modern sensibilities. For viewers who want more of the HBO series, the two games will be as close to perfect as one gets in terms of narrative cohesion mixed with entirely adaptable gameplay features.

The story of cranky but wise smuggler Joel, who gets tasked with delivering a possibly life-saving “package,” aka a teen named Ellie, across the country will likely remain, in broad strokes, the same between the game and series. Still, there is a lot that most likely will not. Television is, after all, a passive form of entertainment; a very different medium than an interactive kind. With that in mind, here are questions and guesses as to what type of show HBO’s adaptation will come to be.

*** The following contains mild spoilers for The Last of Us Part I and II.

5. Will the story structure remain intact?

Since ABC’s Lost became a phenomenon in 2004, serialized storytelling has garnered critical and commercial success. From SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica to HBO’s Game of Thrones, character arcs stopped resetting from episode to episode (like the original Star Trek) in favor of more range and clarity. Along the way, the size of the cast tended to expand too. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power will no doubt have more key roles than the entire population of The Shire.

The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie, mainly traveling on foot from Boston to Utah. Along the way, they encounter several people over the course of a year. The key, however, is that the game’s twelve chapters tend to keep the supporting cast to only one or two. Each supporting character and new area represents different themes like loss, paranoia, and possibly, hope.

Yet, according to IMDB, Bill, who’ll be played by Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation), will be in nine of the ten episodes, while Anna Torv, who plays Tess, will be in six. Bill is only in one chapter in the game, although he’s a fan favorite, so expanding his role makes sense. Tess’ arc is, essentially, in the game’s first few chapters. TV often adds characters as seasons continue (Until they’re killed off, of course). All this news could be good considering the strength of actors like Torv or Offerman, but the story’s emotional heft is Joel and Ellie’s journey, not Joel, Ellie, “and friends.”

Then again, recent hits like Netflix’s The Sandman kept the main cast to only a few while having guest stars like Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie show up to play Lucifer in a single episode. HBO’s adaption of The Last of Us could have easily done this. Personally, I think sticking to that structure would have been closer to the game’s spirit, but we’ll have to wait and see if more Bill is a good thing. The actors playing Henry and Sam, a sibling duo that tugged at the heartstrings, alas, will only be in two episodes.

4. Who Will Troy and Ashley Play?

In the game, the performances of Joel and Ellie were voiced/mo-capped by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. One of the best features of the new Part 1 release is better representation of the actor’s facial expressions. No matter how good Pascal and Ramsey might be, anyone who loves this series will no doubt be skeptical to a degree. As a kind of small consolation, Baker and Johnson reportedly have “important” roles on the show.

IMDB lists them both as being in two episodes. Fan speculation is that Johnson will play Ellie’s mom in a flashback. Thus giving Ellie her signature switchblade? My guess is both characters are new to the series (Ellie’s mother is never seen in the games but was in the comic book The Last of Us: American Dreams). Some speculate Troy will play creeper David, the leader of a cult in Colorado. However, I highly doubt this and will get to my reason why at my #1.

3. “Deviates Greatly” like how much?

A few months back, there was a rumor stating that either the new Part 1 version or the HBO show would alter the character of Sam, a young boy Ellie meets in Pittsburgh, to be deaf. Ellie would use ASL to communicate. It’s a great way to add more inclusivity to the world. Well, Part 1 did not include this, but perhaps HBO’s show will?

Last year, in an interview with IGN, Druckmann revealed that at least in “some episodes,” the show will deviate significantly from the game. Judging by the casting of the characters of Frank and Riley, this is almost surely the case. Frank is a character mentioned but already deceased by the time the story of Part 1 takes place. Riley, a friend of Ellie’s, is only seen in the DLC Left Behind. Remember when I mentioned Lost? That show’s other big legacy after serialized storytelling was the use of flashbacks (and forwards).

Casting characters like these screams that flashbacks will definitely be used on HBO’s adaptation. With so many characters being beefed up and others making their debut, the use of time, whether forward or backward, makes a lot of sense. Typically, such a device is a way to dive deeper into a character’s backstory. Then again, flashbacks are a significant part of Part II. Speaking of…

2. Will Part II Be Alluded To?

If Part 1 was an 80s rock album, it’s undoubtedly Guns N Roses’ “Appetite For Destruction.” That makes Part 2 akin to the band’s magnum opus double LP, “Use Your Illusion I and II.” The bulk of the story is only three days in Seattle (unlike Part 1‘s year-long journey) featuring dual protagonists. Think of each character’s narrative as one of two vinyls. The design is meant to convey the importance of POV. One half of the game is focused on a 19-year-old Ellie while the other half is about a similarly aged new character, Abby Anderson. Because key events overlap with Part 1′s timeline, there’s a chance Abby will be introduced in HBO’s series before the bulk of Part 2’s story begins. Also, key moments between Joel and Ellie, seen via flashbacks in Part 2, might just be played out in a more conventional timeline, possibly in season one or two. And so…

1. When Will Season One End?

If HBO’s series was merely live-action re-enactments of the Part 1 cutscenes, a ten-episode season would be plenty of time to witness Joel and Ellie’s twelve-month trek across America. Clearly, the show isn’t going to focus on teaching viewers about combat and crafting like the game (my kingdom for broken scissors!), yet narratively there is a lot in Part 1.

My guess is that with Tess featured in the first six episodes, season one will cover the first half of Part 1. There IS an excellent cliffhanger point right before the winter dread of Colorado’s third act shockers that could be done. Yet, knowing how much HBO is reportedly spending on the series ($15 million per episode), it will not be a three-season show. Five to six seasons (assuming Part 3 isn’t released in the meantime) is a safe bet. Obviously, this assumes the kind of critical acclaim and viewer numbers to warrant such a costly endeavor.

David, one of the scariest non-infected humans in the series to date, could have been an interesting casting for Troy Baker, but I suspect David is in season two (Ditto for Part II‘s Abby, if not season three). If halfway is indeed the plan, then season one ends with Joel and Ellie’s time with Sam and Henry (I’m not crying, you’re crying). Although Joel’s brother Tommy has been cast, those scenes might be flashbacks, or the end of season one is the reunion between the two siblings. Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who, according to IMDB, is in all ten episodes, would certainly be in the pilot’s gripping prologue.

The Last of Us is easily one of the best Post Apocalyptic tales of the 21st century. Like last year’s HBO Max limited series, Station Eleven (based on Emily St. John Mandel’s critically acclaimed novel), there’s so much more to The Last of Us than offing a clicker with a shiv. Generational trauma, parent-child dynamics, survivor’s guilt, and the all too-relevant dangers of tribalism are all on display. Here’s hoping HBO’s The Last of Us knows when you’re lost in the darkness, to look for the light. It can’t all be for nothing.

The Last of Us Part 1 is now available for purchase. HBO’s The Last of Us debuts early 2023.

Written by
Peter Paras is pop culture writer who has been reviewing films for the past fifteen years. Raised in Chicago—but an Angeleno since the start of 21st century—he has plenty to say about films, television, videogames, and the occasional YouTube channel. He’s a frequent guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe, as well as TV Campfire Podcast. His work has been published at Why So Blu, Game Revolution and E! Online. His favorites include: Sunset Blvd, Step Up 2 The Streets, Hackers, Paris Is Burning, both installments of The Last of Us, Destiny 2, and Frasier.

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