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How and Why HBO's 'The Last of Us' Adaptation Expands Character Arcs

'You remove all the gameplay, there's a lot of space for story,' says co-creator Craig Mazin.

Danielle Turchiano
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Pedro Pascal in 'The Last of Us'

HBO

If you're a fan of The Last of Us as a video game, you know a lot about the combat situations Joel and Ellie get into as they fight to survive amongst a fungus-infected population. But there is so much more about the characters, their relationships, and their lives before and after the outbreak that can't get explored in the action-heavy format of a video game.

Enter The Last of Us drama series on HBO, adapted for the screen by Emmy-winning Chernobyl creator and showrunner Craig Mazin and The Last of Us game's writer and creative director Neil Druckmann.

"We're covering the story, the narrative cycle of that game," Mazin says. "So, we do go through, and we do a little bit more. We're telling the story passively to the audience: The audience sits there and watches. You remove all the gameplay, there's a lot of space for story. And we use every square inch of it to give you the story of The Last of Us and more."

HBO's version of the story begins decades before Joel (played here by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played here by Bella Ramsey) are thrown together. It starts with Joel in his everyday life in 2003 when he is raising his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker). (That year is not a typo; the series changed the outbreak year by a decade in order to set its present-day storyline in our real-world present day.)

"It was an incredible opportunity for me to get started in that way. To have Nico Parker, who is amazing, that was an instant father-daughter bond, and fun and a perfect way to start," Pascal says.

Of course, that family is "instantly torn apart by outbreak day, an iconic moment that exists in the game that fans are all very aware of that basically shapes who this man is for the rest of his journey," he continues.

As in the game, the main action of the series is set 20 years after the outbreak. Joel has lost his family and is working alongside Tess (Anna Torv). They make a deal with Marlene (still played by Merle Dandridge) to transport Ellie to a safe house in exchange for supplies. But from there, the story widens and diverges.

"Neil would always say, 'We can change anything, but we need to talk about why. And if there's not a good reason — if we can't do better — let's deliver what we have.' And there are places where I thought we came up with really interesting ideas," Mazin teases. "Sometimes I would call him and I would be like, 'I'm scared to say this idea,' and every now and then he would say nothing for a bit and then he would say, 'Aw you know what? We should have done that in the game.' And then I'm like, 'OK, aha, OK we're onto something.' The big secret is, Neil Druckmann was so confident and secure in the story of the game that he was then able to be flexible with me to go wander and fill in and change and alter."

As Druckmann explains, much of that willingness to make alterations and expand characters' stories is because the point of the game is to immerse its players in "continuous sequences through continuous space and time to get you to feel like you're that character." But, he believes, shooting a television show exactly the same way would "get boring" to the point of even the violence becoming "rote."

Specifically, he previews, the third episode of the first season takes a big detour from the game. Crediting Mazin with pitching him the idea, Druckmann says, "I think that story in particular is so beautiful and moving and speaks to the themes that are explored in the game and the show about the beauty and the horror and sadness that can come from love."

The Last of Us premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 15 on HBO and will also stream on HBO Max.

Chris Hayner contributed to this story.