‘The Last of Us’ showrunner opens up on the pressures of adapting a video game classic

The Last of Us Ellie saving Joel from the Infected
Image via Naughty Dog

HBO’s The Last of Us series, in the words of its showrunner Craig Mazin, is “an open-and-shut case” and “the greatest story that has ever been told in video games.” In turn, there’s hope that the upcoming adaptation will be one of the best TV shows ever made as well. That’s no small feat, but we’re holding out hope. By the looks of the cast, the production values, and the faithfulness to the source material, it looks as if The Last of Us will exceed all of our expectations — which are already pretty high.

Naughty Dog’s critically-acclaimed post-apocalyptic survival drama became one of the best-selling video games of all time, winning several accolades, including multiple Game of the Year awards. The story follows hard-bitten smuggler Joel, who’s tasked with transporting teenager Ellie — the key to developing a cure to the Cordyceps fungus that ravages the US — across the States to be retrieved by the Fireflies, a resistance group of survivalists who have the means to end the Infected rampage. After losing his biological daughter Sarah, Joel eventually forms an unbreakable bond with Ellie that verges on a surrogate father-daughter relationship.

Craig Mazin, the showrunner for HBO’s upcoming series, spoke to Empire magazine about the pressures of adapting such a beloved video game franchise. When asked about what made The Last of Us so successful, Mazin mentioned that Joel and Ellie were the most important part of the equation, especially when communicating that they’re ordinary citizens thrown into an extraordinary situation and simply finding the means to survive. It’s the emotional investment that draws in an audience, particularly those with an attachment to Naughty Dog’s games.

“They were just people. And that, in and of itself, is remarkably rare in games. The fact that they kept it so grounded, and really made you feel – I had never experienced anything like it, and I’ve been playing video games since 1977.”

Mazin makes another valid point by saying that video games are usually more fun to play than watch, even for a cinematic spectacle like The Last of Us. That presents another challenge in itself, so there needs to be a healthy mixture of drawing inspiration from the games and then taking the initiative to steer the story in a different, unexpected, and more creative direction.

“Games themselves are often brilliant to play, and not at all brilliant to watch when dramatised. Why are we only doing what’s in the game? What can we do to expand?’

The Last of Us will start streaming on Jan. 15, 2023.