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Television Series Review
The Last of Us
Created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann
Based on The Last of Us (2013) by Naughty Dog
Streaming on HBO Max
(Rated TV–MA, 2023—)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us.**
Video game adaptations tend to have a reputation for being, well, terrible.1 And everyone seems to have a theory as to why that is the case. Perhaps it has to do with lack of interest from audiences, or lazy, phoned-in screenwriting, or fundamental differences in medium. Cases can certainly be made for all three and others beside. Suffice to say, whatever the cause, even on the off chance that a video game adaptation is a moderate financial success, it is practically guaranteed to be savaged by critics — and many of them rightly so (have you ever seen Alone in the Dark ? If so, bless your heart. If not, then don’t).
But 2023 has proven to be the year that the ship might turn about. This is a cultural moment, a point in time in which a new helmsman has taken command and turned the hopeless vessel hard into the wind, and its bow is currently cutting through the waves in mid-turn. The cannons are thundering the double-shot salvo of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is still in its theatrical run and has shattered multiple box-office records to become the highest grossing film of the year, and HBO’s serialized adaptation of The Last of Us, a massive ratings success and a certifiable critical darling.
Gaming Evolution. Though it might be hard to grasp, video games have come a long way since Pac-Man first chomped his way into arcades in 1980.2 Long gone are the days of two-dimensional gaming landscapes; engines capable of producing photorealistic graphics are now industry standard, even beyond major AAA titles. Christians tend to ignore the gaming medium to their detriment. The rise of mobile gaming, especially, has brought the medium to the fore in many households — games are as common as cell phones, at this point. Even if Christian parents choose not to embrace the medium, they should at the very least be familiar with the technological advancements that have allowed video games like The Last of Us and, more recently, God of War3 to become highly regarded cultural artifacts, on par with major motion pictures.
One company that has excelled in delivering high-quality gaming experiences for over a decade now has been Naughty Dog, which has dumped millions into scripting, casting, and motion-capturing critically acclaimed titles, such as Uncharted4 and The Last of Us (2013). Indeed, the company’s “cinematic” approach to developing video games has contributed to the massive leaps in evolution the medium has undergone in the past ten years.
Naughty Dog’s specific “filmic brand of interactive action” with Hollywood-style production values, as writer Martin Robinson put it, has become the studio’s trademark.5 A Naughty Dog game is not just a game, offering much more than the temporary rush of adrenaline that players experience as part of the innately interactive medium. No, a Naughty Dog game brings with it well-rounded, well-written characters, a story with themes and subtleties woven thoughtfully and intricately into the mechanics of gameplay so that one complements the other. It is little surprise, then, that Hollywood would eventually come calling with an eye for adaptation.
Yet 2022’s Uncharted film was abysmal — enough so that I, as an Uncharted fan since the very first game released back in 2007, never finished it. It was another case of Hollywood screenwriters butchering the characterizations and themes of the original games, the very things that made them so memorable in the first place. But somewhere between the production of Uncharted and HBO’s 2023 adaptation of The Last of Us, someone behind the scenes wisened up and brought Neil Druckmann, the writer and creative director of the video game, into the fold. The result is what critics have hailed as the “best video game adaptation ever made,” though that is, admittedly, not a terribly high bar to clear.6
Gaming’s Greatest Story? Craig Mazin, showrunner of the acclaimed Chernobyl (2019) and co-creator of HBO’s The Last of Us alongside Druckmann, called the original incarnation “the greatest story that has ever been told in video games.”7 And while that can certainly be debated, there is no denying that Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was a watershed moment in the history of video games. Were there ever any doubts that the medium could produce gripping and mature dramatic storytelling on par with the “prestige format” television series popular in the early 2010s, those doubts were quelled with the release of The Last of Us.
In the original story, a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus8 spreads rapidly throughout the United States, turning its human hosts into aggressive, cannibalistic creatures. Joel (voiced by Troy Baker), who lost his daughter during the initial outbreak, is a smuggler in this strange new world, working alongside his partner, Tess (Annie Wersching). Joel and Tess are tasked with smuggling a young girl, Ellie (Ashley Johnson), to a group of rebel militia known as the Fireflies, who lead the resistance against the totalitarian government.
What the characters come to learn, however, is that Ellie is infected. Yet her body is resistant to the infection. In fact, a cure with the potential to save the world could very well be locked inside her DNA. This positions Ellie as a kind of Christ-figure, and Joel as her lethal guardian. But the real emotional core of the narrative is the developing relationship between the two of them, as Ellie comes to find in Joel the father she never had, and Joel finds in Ellie the chance to succeed in protecting the daughter he failed decades in the past.
All of this leads to one of gaming’s most memorable finales, when Joel realizes that a chance at saving the world means that Ellie will have to die. He then makes the decision to save Ellie, effectively robbing the world of its chance at a cure to save the life of the girl who has become, for all intents and purposes, his surrogate daughter. The boldness and rich emotional conflict of the video game’s final sequence elevated the already great material well above the traditional genre fare, delivering a complex and complicated narrative that was unafraid to wrinkle the morality of its protagonists in ways that made complete emotional and psychological sense, despite being inherently selfish in motivation. In doing so, The Last of Us was propelled almost immediately onto lists of “greatest video games ever made,” collecting numerous coveted “Game of the Year” awards from a variety of outlets.
Friends and Family. The HBO adaptation of The Last of Us is religiously faithful to the source material. Much of the dialogue and even some of the camera angles are lifted straight from the game’s script. This, no doubt, comes as a result of Druckmann’s direct involvement in the development of the series.9 What has been expanded, however, are the backgrounds and stories of many of the side characters that Joel, played by Pedro Pascal, and Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, meet on their trek across the United States.
Characters like Bill (Nick Offerman) and Henry (Lamar Johnson), who play key roles in the video game, are developed further in the series, to the point where they steal the show in their respective episodes, in which Joel and Ellie appear more or less as side characters. By deepening the development of these other characters well beyond the limitations of the video game medium, Mazin and Druckmann create a world that feels lived-in and fleshed out. When these kinds of characters show up, their stories come across less like they are there simply to service moving Joel and Ellie from point A to point B, and more like Joel and Ellie have walked into lives and dramas unfolding outside of the scope of their personal journey. This lends The Last of Us a sense of focus, intentionality, and attention to detail that is frequently missing from video game adaptations.
But the characters and their stories all coalesce into one important thematic idea: family. Just as Joel becomes surrogate father to Ellie, Bill searches for an intimate connection in the midst of an apocalypse, Henry struggles to take care of his younger brother, and Joel’s brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), aims to start his own nuclear family within the commune he has built. Writers Adam Jerrett and Peter Howell characterize the connections between these “found” families as contributing to the ultimate framing of “love” as the theme at the core of the show: “Joel loved Sarah [his daughter]. Bill loved Frank [his partner]. Kathleen loved her brother. David’s community loved him.”10
Faith in the Time of Cordyceps. Druckmann’s stories occasionally dabble in Christian imagery and themes. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) has as a plot device a relic depicting the cross of St. Dismas (the penitent thief at Jesus’ crucifixion). In The Last of Us, viewers meet the character of David, whose story has been expanded in the television series to incorporate the idea that he is a Christian preacher. David is ultimately revealed to be a villain whose concern with protecting his followers leads him to commit atrocities, such as cannibalism to keep them fed and alive.
The episode became a lightning rod for a conversation regarding perceived “anti-Christian biases” in Hollywood. This debate was sparked due largely to social media comments made by The Office star Rainn Wilson, who suggested that David’s characterization as a villain reflected a stereotypical Hollywood characterization of a “Bible-reading preacher.”11 There is certainly no denying that the powers-that-be in Hollywood tend to be wary of anything that might suggest a film caters to “evangelical” or “fundamental” audiences (unless, of course, a film is made with the intention of catering to those audiences). Several Christian actors claim to have been blacklisted when becoming more outspoken about their faith, which Hollywood (and the culture at large) has come to equate with political leanings.12
But it would be disingenuous to suggest that The Last of Us is some kind of anti-religion polemic, regardless of the biases of Hollywood. Anyone familiar with Druckmann’s body of work understands that he has incorporated Christian iconography and lore into his stories before, and the fact that he does so in The Last of Us is somewhat unsurprising. It is also worth pointing out that David’s character is one who lost his way in spite of his faith, not as a result of it. David’s problem is that he takes his role as the protector of his community too seriously, a result of pride, to the point where he is willing to lie to and deceive them in order to keep them alive (which, ironically, is the same position Joel will occupy by the end of the season).
Not Recommended. Suffice to say, The Last of Us is a well-written and intelligently made series that more than earns its marks as a worthwhile video game adaptation. However, there is nothing here that warrants a status of “must-see” viewing among audiences of faith; in fact, the multiple same-sex relationships throughout the series make it difficult to recommend to Christian families, even those with older Christian children who could appreciate the subtleties in the storytelling.
Really, Christians interested in experiencing The Last of Us should just play the original game. The story is equally as rich but told more tightly; certain side characters are less developed, but the focus on Joel and Ellie is more pronounced; and the sexuality is dialed back to a few lines of suggestive dialogue.
Worth noting again is the fact that The Last of Us began life as a video game. The HBO adaptation was not intended to heighten the game’s appeal; rather, it was intended to capitalize on the game’s popularity. The fact that the producers of the series have hewn so closely to the game’s core story and themes is a testament to the strength of that original narrative.
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes for high school and college students in Bible exposition and systematic theology. He also writes extensively about theology and popular culture.
***5/17/23-Please note additional information has been added to the main text body after initial publication.***
- Keza MacDonald, “Movie Adaptations of Video Games Are Still Mostly Terrible. Why Has No One Cracked the Code?,” The Guardian, March 29, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/29/movie-adaptations-video-games-terrible-crack-code.
- Riad Chikhani, “The History of Gaming: An Evolving Community,” TechCrunch, October 31, 2015, https://techcrunch.com/2015/10/31/the-history-of-gaming-an-evolving-community/.
- The God of War franchise began in 2005.
- Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in 2007 and followed by several sequels.
- Martin Robinson, “The New Cinema of Naughty Dog,” Eurogamer, July 31, 2014, https://www.eurogamer.net/the-new-cinema-of-naughty-dog.
- Aaron Pruner, “The Last of Us First Reviews: ‘Best Video Game Adaptation Ever Made,’ Critics Say,” Rotten Tomatoes, January 10, 2023, https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/the-last-of-us-first-reviews/.
- Ben Travis, “The Last of Us: Craig Mazin on Adapting ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told in Video Games,’” Empire, December 19, 2022, https://www.empireonline.com/tv/news/the-last-of-us-craig-mazin-greatest-story-ever-told-video-games-exclusive/.
- The origin of the human zombies in The Last of Us is based on a real-world fungus that infects insects. “‘Zombie’ Parasite Cordyceps Fungus Takes over Insects through Mind Control,” National Geographic, April 30, 2019, video, 4:09, https://youtu.be/vijGdWn5-h8. Carl Zimmer, “After This Fungus Turns Ants into Zombies, Their Bodies Explode,” New York Times, October 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/24/science/ant-zombies-fungus.html.
- Natalie Jarvey, “The Last of Us Game Creator’s Parents Can ‘Finally Experience’ His Work,” Vanity Fair, January 13, 2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2023/01/the-last-of-us-game-creators-parents-can-finally-experience-his-work.
- Adam Jerrett and Peter Howell, “The Last of Us: HBO’s Adaptation Elevates the Video Game’s Themes of Love and Family,” January 27, 2023, https://theconversation.com/the-last-of-us-hbos-adaptation-elevates-the-video-games-themes-of-love-and-family-198539.
- Rainn Wilson, quoted in Brandon Louis, “Last of Us Criticized by Rainn Wilson for ‘Anti-Christian Bias,’” ScreenRant, March 15, 2023, https://screenrant.com/last-of-us-show-rainn-wilson-criticism-christian-bias/.
- See, e.g., Anna Lee, “‘Hercules’ Actor Kevin Sorbo: ‘Completely Blacklisted’ for Being Christian in Hollywood,” The Greenville News, April 24, 2019, https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/entertainment/2019/04/24/hercules-incredible-journeys-actor-kevin-sorbo-greenville-sc-christian-hollywood-blacklist/3552813002/; Jeannie Ortega Law, “Hollywood Actor Cut from ABC Show for Refusing to Do Sex Scenes Is Glad He Stuck by Christian Values,” The Christian Post, January 12, 2019, https://www.christianpost.com/news/hollywood-actor-cut-from-abc-show-for-refusing-to-do-sex-scenes-is-glad-he-stuck-by-christian-values.html.