Why Neil Druckmann Risked The Video Game's Legacy To Make HBO's The Last Of Us

"The Last Of Us" is a risk. HBO's adaptation of Neil Druckmann's beloved video game is highly anticipated, but for fervent fans of the game series, it's an anticipation that's tinged with nerves. Will the series get the game's beautiful, bleak story right? Will the emotional nuance of the central relationship between cynical survivor Joel and teen girl Ellie stay intact? These are, apparently, the types of questions Druckmann considered when choosing to adapt the series, and at a press event and roundtable interview attended by /Film's Ben Pearson, he dug into the factors in the adaptation that made risking the game's legacy worth it.

When asked why he decided to gamble with the legacy of such a deeply loved franchise by adapting it into a TV series, Druckmann spoke about the particular talents of the team involved in the show, and explained that an abandoned film adaptation attempt set him on the right track. "In earlier attempts to adapt this thing, there were a couple years where we tried to make it as a movie. And it became very clear very early on why it wouldn't work," Druckmann shared. A film adaptation was announced back in 2014, but it ultimately fell apart, with Druckmann later revealing that the studio envisioned the film as more action-oriented than the story needed to be.

It all goes back to Chernobyl

"So much of, I think, what makes this story special is this relationship between Joel and Ellie, and how they incrementally change over a long period of time, over an entire year," Druckmann explained. "To try to condense that to two hours always felt like it was going to be compromised and it will never live up to the game." The writer/director says he was able to see a path forward for the adaptation after meeting with Craig Mazin, the show's eventual co-creator and showrunner. Druckmann says he spoke with Mazin about his work on the fantastic and harrowing limited series "Chernobyl," adding, "I was such a huge fan of the tone and how beautiful that story was told."

In the end, it sounds like it was a combination of Druckmann's faith in HBO's programming — he cites shows like "The Sopranos," "The Leftovers," and "Watchmen" as "fantastic storytelling" — and in Mazin's ability to tell a tough story well that made this adaptation of "The Last Of Us" worth it for him. Druckmann says when he watched "Chernobyl," he was worried "that it would be too depressing," but was impressed to find that it was an "engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking" thriller. "Oh man, if I could team up with this guy to tell the story, maybe there's a good chance of doing a good version of it," Druckmann recalled thinking.

Druckmann is just as proud of the show as the game

Once Mazin was on board and the project landed at HBO, it sounds like Druckmann, whose previous experience is in the world of video games, was able to trust that the project was (finally) on the right track. "Over time, I was able to just relax more and more and ease and lean into this process, and lean into Craig's leadership in this other medium and really trust his expertise on this," he told /Film's Ben Pearson.

Druckmann's protectiveness over the material and willingness to wait to get it right is a promising sign for game fans, and it sounds like he's happy with the final product he and Mazin ended up with. "I love coming out on the other side of it and [being] like, 'I am just as proud of the show as I was [of] the game,'" Druckmann said. He even goes so far as to praise it as a standalone, saying, "It's a beautiful show, even outside of the — if the game never existed, I think it would move me the way it does when I watch it." 

The series creator also said he loved showing the Naughty Dog team parts of the new series, which his thinks honors what the game company spent years working on. He loved "seeing their reaction, and seeing the pride in their eyes when they're watching the show." Though the fans of the games obviously didn't work hard on it the way its creators do, they've been championing the series that's about hope, despair, and human connection for a decade now. Hopefully, when "The Last Of Us" premieres on HBO on January 15, 2023, fans will have pride in their eyes, too.