Joel and Ellie will soon make their live-action debut as part of HBO’s TV adaptation of Naughty Dog Studios’ critically acclaimed video game “The Last of Us,” but the road to getting this adaptation off the ground was a challenging one — and it started with a scuttled attempt to turn the post-apocalyptic game into a movie.
The series takes place 20 years after modern civilization has been destroyed. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal, heartbreaking journey, as they both must traverse the U.S. and depend on each other for survival.
The show is written and executive produced by Craig Mazin (“Chernobyl”) and Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann, both of whom walked TheWrap through the process of turning the game into a prestige drama series ahead of its premiere on Jan. 15.
The first game made its debut on PlayStation 3 in 2013, while the sequel, “The Last of Us: Part II,” was released in 2020 on the PlayStation 4. The “Last of Us” video game franchise has sold through more than 37 million copies globally as of December 2022, according to Naughty Dog, and both Druckmann and Mazin are well aware of the pressure they’re under to do justice for fans of the game.
In 2014, Sony had announced that a “Last of Us” movie was in the works, with Druckmann attached to write and Sam Raimi to produce. But Druckmann told TheWrap that shortly after starting work on the film adaptation, he realized there was “just too much story to try to squeeze down to two hours.”
“Even though I removed a bunch of side characters, the journey of Ellie and Joel was rushed,” he explained. “Part of what makes the story unique and work really well is just the slow burn of it all, that they’re changing in really significant ways, but really slowly over a long period of time.”
A key ingredient that made the TV adaptation of “The Last of Us” the right one for Druckmann was working with Mazin.
“I was blown away by how good [‘Chernobyl’] was, how well written it was and just the taste behind it,” Druckmann said of Mazin’s Emmy-winning HBO limited series. “Taste is something really hard to line up with someone else.”
Mazin told TheWrap that being a fan of the source material was the driving factor that prompted him to collaborate on “The Last of Us” TV show.
“It just kind of worked out in this crazy bit of serendipity that the rights to the story, which had been kind of over in movieville for so long, had come back to Naughty Dog,” he recalled. “We had a mutual friend, Shannon Woodward, who was the voice for Dina in “The Last of Us: Part II” who had been trying to get us on a buddy date forever and finally it happened.”
Following their meeting, the pair walked HBO’s chairman and CEO Casey Bloys and the rest of the programming team through their concept for the show.
“They were like all in and the faith that they’ve shown us, I mean, it’s crazy. I can’t believe they did,” Mazin said. “And I think the good news is, I believe we’ve rewarded that faith. I think we’ve done a really good job and I’m excited for the rest of the world to see what we’ve done.”
Looming over “The Last of Us” is the COVID-19 pandemic, which cast a shadow over the entire production.
“We had to wear masks, we had to get tested continuously to make sure we’re being as safe as possible,” Druckmann said. “There were no visitors on set, so our significant others and families just had to stay away from us for a long period of time. And when we cast people, we had to do it remotely over Zoom, which is not ideal but we managed.”
But Druckmann pointed out that the subject matter of “The Last of Us” differs from COVID-19 in that it is a “post-pandemic show.”
“It’s not a show about a pandemic. It’s an episode about a pandemic, maybe an episode and a half if you count a little bit of the opening of second episode,” he emphasized. “The pandemic, the infected, they’re all there to apply pressure on our main cast to force them to make interesting choices that are often at odds with each other to reveal to us who they really are.”
Despite its focus on a post-pandemic world, COVID-19 influenced the creative team’s approach to “The Last of Us” TV show and its infected characters.
“It became important for us to actually acknowledge how smart the audience had become and how informed the audience would become about what a pandemic is. And then, in a way, kind of leverage that a little bit and have a scientist say right off the bat, ‘There’s something so much worse and here’s what it is’,” Mazin said. “And that, I think, helped ground what was coming because the choice that Neil made when he created the game was brilliant. It was to ground this in real science, nothing supernatural here.”
Still, Mazin and Druckmann didn’t shy away from the fact that they were making a post-pandemic show for viewers who were living through a real pandemic.
“We now all have a much better sense of what it means to be afraid of our fellow man who is sick. And yet also we wanted the audience to feel a strange kinship and sympathy and pity for the sick and to recognize or at least challenge the audience to ask the question: What if they’re really still in there?,” Mazin added. “So we definitely drew some inspiration from the world around us, but it was important for us to never drift into like a COVID-19 polemic. It’s just not what we’re about. We’re a show about love, we’re a show about trauma, we’re a show about relationships and the why we survive, not how we survive.”
In order to ensure the show looked and felt as true to the original game as possible, Druckmann and Mazin brought in the game’s character art director, concept artists and environment team to give notes on the production’s costumes and sets. Additionally, the sound team used reference from the game in order to get noises from the infected characters just right.
“Everything that we do comes out of respect for the game and not blind respect but earned respect,” Mazin said. “There’s nothing about this that was perfunctory. It was always just about love.”
But Druckmann acknowledged that the HBO adaptation will make changes from its source material where it “makes sense.”
“There’s certain things that work in the games that just don’t work in the show and they have to kind of evolve,” Druckmann said.
He argued that the the problem with many video game adaptations is that they try too hard to be a direct duplication of their source material.
“I think that would have made for a poor adaptation had we tried because it would always be lesser than. Anytime you’re trying to copy something, at best you’re going to match it. And more likely than not, you’re not going to reach that same high,” he added. “So for us, what we prioritized more than anything is performance. We didn’t care if someone’s eyebrow didn’t match a CG eyebrow in the game. That’s not what’s important to us. At least on our list of priorities, that’ll be near the bottom.”
One of the most obvious changes is that Joel and Ellie will be played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, respectively. While the game’s main voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson set the path and defined what made Joel and Ellie special, Druckmann said it was ultimately up to Pascal and Ramsey to “reinterpret that material, internalize it, and make it their own.”
“What’s important for Joel is to find somebody that’s not only tough, and Pedro clearly has that in spades, but someone that is tortured and is vulnerable and has been broken down over these like really difficult 20 years where they survived in this world,” he noted. “And someone that’s going to connect with Ellie and is funny and is charismatic, but is having the discipline as an actor to suppress all that and let it peak out at the right moment to really draw you in these really kind of fascinating ways.”
Likewise for Ellie, it was about finding the best person to embody the character’s attributes.
“She had to be really smart, she had to be resourceful, she had to be quirky, she had to really push against authority and have all this potential for violence of where her story eventually goes,” he added. “When we watched Bella’s audition tape, it just felt so natural. And there was no question in our minds for this story, this is our Ellie.”
Mazin told TheWrap that he believes audiences will enjoy the show’s story even if they’ve never picked up the game.
“I love playing video games. They’re amazing so that game is worth experiencing in its own right, but it’s not required at all to experience the show and enjoy it,” Mazin said. “There’s no homework required, there are no assignments, there’s no prologue. You can go in with nothing and you will have, I think, a fantastic experience because we’ve kept you in mind.”
As for “Last of Us” fans, he emphasized that every decision in the show was made with “care, thought and deliberation.“
“There is nothing that we did cavalierly at all, ever. You may not agree with every choice we made, but I want you to know it was a choice. We discussed it and thought about it and we did so from the point of view of love of those characters and that experience and that game,” he said. “So I want them to know we have them in the front of our mind all the time.”
“The Last of Us” premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Jan. 15 at 9 pm ET/PT.