Here's The Secret To A Great Video Game Adaptation, According To The Creators Of HBO's The Last Of Us

HBO's adaptation of the critically acclaimed video game "The Last of Us" is nearly here. With this adaptation come hefty expectations. Released in 2013 at the end of the life cycle of the PlayStation 3 console, "The Last of Us" redefined what was possible for a video game narrative. The characters, story, and gameplay all felt engineered to elicit feelings of empathy and love. These intentions are something creator Neil Druckmann flipped on their head with "The Last of Us Part II" in 2021, with controversial story decisions meant to bring out anger and even hatred from players (mostly in a good way). 

From a narrative standpoint, "The Last of Us" is a game that's ripe for adaptation into a television series. The project was a long time coming, first starting as a film and eventually becoming a television series to better flesh out its characters and narrative. As strong as the story of the games is, no adaptation, much less one of a video game, is a guaranteed success. Series co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann understand the responsibility of bringing this story to life in a new medium and recently discussed what they believe makes a video game adaptation genuinely great.

A rich narrative to pull from

At a roundtable interview attended by /Film's Ben Pearson, Mazin and Druckmann were asked for their thoughts on how video game adaptations have changed over the years and what HBO's "The Last of Us" would contribute to the genre. Craig Mazin was quick to point out the narrative strengths of the original game, since many video games, as entertaining as they may be, can sometimes lack narrative strength:

"Well, I think we are unique because we have "The Last of Us." The secret to a great video game adaptation: Start with a great video game! And by great video game, I mean great story, characters, and relationships. Because I've played video games that I've absolutely adored, but they had no character. I was playing somebody that didn't even talk. [In those games,] I don't even know what [my character looks] like."

Aside from being a video game that has a resonant story and characters viewers can empathize with, Mazin also believes their upcoming adaptation is unique simply because of the fact he's working closely with Neil Druckmann, the original creator of the video game:

"So you start with the best possible story in that medium, and then you work with the guy who created it, and you work hand in hand. And you get lucky enough to work with a creator who understands what adaptation is and has just the smarts to know, 'Hey, this is what we port over, this is what we don't. This is what we change, and this is what we don't.'"

Having a team that cares

Mazin also emphasized how important it was to him, Druckmann, and even HBO that the series would be a labor of love, saying that he and Druckmann "live and breathe 'The Last of Us'" and "understand every little tiny bit" of the game and its story mechanics. Some video game adaptations have been made not because the studio or creative team cared about the story, but because they saw it as having franchise potential. Look no further than last year's "Uncharted," which had a revolving door of directors and ended up feeling uninspired and failed to capture the magic of the games. 

But despite some misfires in the genre, Mazin is optimistic about the future of adaptations:

"I am hopeful for better video game adaptations. I'm hopeful for soulful video game adaptations that surprise us and, again, exceed expectations but clearly honor and understand the source material. But that's ultimately going to come down to the nature of the source material, the reasons people made it in the first place, and then who's in charge."

"The Last of Us" has all the makings of a great adaptation. The series is comprised of a talented cast that honestly cares about how they bring these characters to life and a behind-the-scenes team intent on maintaining critical story themes but playing loose with other details. HBO's "The Last of Us" feels truly exciting and could potentially be the beginning of a new era in the genre. Even Neil Druckmann hopes the series will one day set an example of how to handle an adaptation.

Setting a new standard

In the same roundtable interview, Druckmann expressed his hopes that "The Last of Us" will help set a new standard for how adaptations are made:

"The only thing I'll add is the hope for me is that there's this thing called — we refer to it in the industry as the 'video game curse,' where, especially for dramatic stories, the adaptations have just not honored the source material or haven't created something great in this other medium. And I hope that, more than anything, this process will be successful, and people will look back at the show and be like, 'Oh, this is how you need to do it. You need to put people in charge that really understand what this is about.'"

Only time will tell if the comprehensive dedication Mazin and Druckmann put into the series will pay off. There are other upcoming adaptations, such as Illumination's "Super Mario Bros." movie and "Return to Silent Hill," that may have entirely different approaches to dealing with the "video game curse" that also work. Whatever the case, HBO's "The Last of Us" looks extremely promising, and viewers can decide for themselves if it cracks the code of video game adaptations when the series premieres on January 15, 2023.