As The Last of Us was first released on the PlayStation a decade ago, everything from key moments to delicate minutiae have calcified in fans’ minds. This hikes up the temperature considerably in terms of anticipation — the legacy is quite real. One of the big questions going into HBO’s adaptation is how much of the game will carry over into the series, and how much will change? The balance is vital to anchor viewers in the story’s world, while still expanding on it in truthful, authentic measures.
Each week, we will look at the translation of notable events from the game on-screen to appreciate the prodigiousness of this adaptation.
Jump to: Episode One // Episode Two // Episode Three // Episode Four
Joel’s Birthday Watch
The story’s opening moments are some of the most difficult to experience as a player, and as they should be. The first POV you play in The Last of Us is of Sarah Miller, Joel’s daughter. The game begins on the evening of Outbreak Day, also known as Joel’s birthday, where Sarah gives him a watch. This exchange is so heartfelt, boxed in with the priceless father-daughter humor that is so fleeting between the two of them. This scene is almost identical in the show, with Nico Parker’s Sarah echoing the same, cheeky words from the game to explain how she paid for the watch: “I sell hardcore drugs,” in the same Texan accent.
The similarities are eerie, but deserved; its warmth swells, especially if you come to the show as a fan of the games. However, before this, the show rewinds us back to the beginning of Outbreak Day, to September 26th, 2003, a decade before the events of the game.
HBO’s adaptation allows viewers to get even closer to Sarah. We follow her throughout the day — cooking breakfast; tossing out quips about Joel needing diapers soon; heading to school; venturing downtown on a city bus to have Joel’s watch fixed (with his money from his bedroom drawer). This makes her death so much more grueling on viewers, as the scene — downtown in flames, restaurant that Joel carries her through, and standoff with the soldier — is effectively identical to that in the game.
The Beginning of the Journey
Fast forward 20 years, and Joel is not bedridden like he is in the game. Instead, he is tossing the corpse of an infected child into the FEDRA flames of the QZ. Tess, gunslinging and troubled as ever, is instead a captive of Robert. He stole the car battery that she and Joel had planned to use to go find Tommy out West. The familial ties seem to be much stronger in the show. Joel and Tess’s romantic partnership is more or less confirmed, and they have a pre-existing mission to go find Tommy who has been AWOL through their radio communications.
When Joel and Tess set off to satisfy their vendetta against Robert, he is already dead — it is Marlene who kills him. His stupidity from the game bleeds into the show, as he thought he would get away with selling the defective car battery again to the Fireflies.
The game and the adaptation converge here, with Marlene handing Ellie over to Tess and Joel. The promise of goods is still very much the same, and their agreement to transport Ellie to downtown Boston is still for selfish reasons. Marlene is injured, FEDRA about a block away from the Fireflies hideout, and desperation is the final push — Joel and Tess for their car battery, Marlene for getting Ellie to the Fireflies lab out West.
Venturing Into Downtown Boston
Once Tess, Joel, and Ellie make it out of the Boston QZ, they do something they almost never do in the game—they rest. Well, Ellie does; Joel and Tess keep watch over her from a lengthy distance inside of a disused barber shop with overgrown foliage. The next events of the show occur in broad daylight as opposed to nighttime, allowing the horror to exist on its own without the darkness to tip the edge. The skyline almost mirrors the environment art from the game: demolished skyscrapers holding each other up to keep from completely dissolving into rubble.
Instead of venturing into one of the dilapidated office buildings to get closer to the Capitol, they cut through a hotel. This seems to evoke a similar setting later in the Pittsburgh portion of the game. While the circumstances are different, geography, character, and plot-wise, this scene even takes from the dialogue of that game encounter, when Ellie asks, “You ever stay in a place like this?” to which Tess takes Joel’s response, “Uh, no. A little out of our league.” In this way, it seems the creators of the show are doing as much as they can to preserve the original content, even if misplaced.
After climbing ten flights of stairs, Joel and Tess realize that they cannot take “the long way” due to the hundreds of infected bodies connected on the ground below (and the short cut was axed before they started walking). Tess explains to Ellie the connectedness of Infected, of how these tendrils can grow miles long underground, forging them into a responsive network. They ultimately decide to go through the museum, which seems to have had a history of Infected dominating the building. When they enter the building, they realize the state of the building is in way worse shape than they had anticipated: the clicking noise is a dead give-away. They make it through, almost exactly as in the game, but not without forthcoming consequences.
The Capitol Building
The similarities between the game and the series with respect to the Capitol Building are haunting, from the angle of the light shining through the high windows to the color of the walls to the dome shape. The panic and exasperation from the game are maintained in this scene as they discover that all of the Fireflies in the Capitol were murdered by Infected. “Our luck had to run out sooner or later,” she says, to which Ellie responds, exactly the same as in the game: “F**k, she’s infected!” Joel turns to her at the same time as the camera pans to him, so that the viewers learn about Tess’s grim fate. Tess’s last preserved line from the game is “Oops, right?” as she uncovers her neck, bitten.
Instead of FEDRA showing up to hunt them down, it’s the dozens of Infected they had spotted earlier in the day from the balcony of the hotel — the tendrils from the Capitol have awakened the masses, and they come running. Tess quickly knocks over tanks of gasoline throughout the room. When the game’s “Make this easy for me,” is replaced with “Save who you can save,” Joel jerks around and drags Ellie out before he can stop himself, because if he waits any longer, he won’t be able to. By the time the Infected make it to the Capitol, Joel and Ellie are gone and Tess tinkers with a lighter that won’t catch. An Infected’s tendrils enter her mouth, making for the most disgusting kiss scene you have ever seen on screen. Then, from outside of the building, you see: an explosion.
Bill and Frank
For this episode, which aligns with the portion of the game in Bill’s town, HBO changes the canon markedly. The greatest distinction, which is inspired from the game, is that Frank is alive in the show — not a corpse with a caustic letter left behind for Bill. Due to the content of that letter in the game, and Ellie later cracking a joke about the male pornography that she took from Bill’s lodging, many fans of the game have long deduced that Bill is gay, and that Frank was in fact his partner, in more than just work. Therefore, the entire presence of Bill and Frank’s story diverges from the game, but it seems to exist with the same flavor as the actual game, such that the story exists authentically within the world of The Last of Us.
Bill’s Less of a Jerk…Slightly
An interesting, more subtle change within the episode is how Bill is as a character. We learn that Bill is an excellent cook and his anal-retentive demeanor manifests more so in maintaining the tranquility of his town. His survivalist skills are more apparent with diminished threat from Infected or raiders. His electric fence keeps those out, and his white-picket fence community is pristine. Within, there is a fabric store, hardware store, and winery.
One small thing seems to be preserved, however small it is. That is the letter Ellie and Joel find when they finally reach Bill’s town in present day, months after he and Frank have died. The contents of the letter are obviously different from the game due to the vast changes of the plot. However, within the letter, along with Bill’s humor, refers to Tess as Joel’s lover, more or less. In the game, Bill’s allusion to Tess and Joel as “inseparable” is one of the only clues that confirms the romantic dimension of their relationship. In this case, it surfaces in the letter, along with the flashback to Joel and Tess dining with Bill and Frank. It truly is a treat to watch.
The fourth episode of the season marks Ellie and Joel’s portion of the journey that they spend in the car. If this were the game, they would be driving towards Pittsburgh; however, the Pittsburgh act of the game is now Kansas City. Remarkably, as in the game, Ellie takes to her humor in this episode, bearing the same copy, cover and all, of the book of puns that Riley gives to her in Left Behind: No Pun Intended (Part Too). Different parts of the episode feature Ellie’s puns, including their campsite in the forest at night that is not from the game.
Moments on the Road
Also from the game are two classic moments from their car ride. First, Ellie whips out a Hank Williams cassette tape, asking Joel, “Does this make you all nostalgic?” to which he replies, “This was actually before my time. It’s a winner, though,” and the notorious tune “Alone and Forsaken” from their entry into Pittsburgh plays in the show. Immediately after, Ellie announces she has something else, a male porn magazine from Bill’s town. With this comes her famous joke, as she asks Joel, “Why are all these pages stuck together?” Joel’s “Uh…” is gorgeously cut with Ellie’s “I’m just f*cking with you,” as she tosses the magazine out the window.
These moments, where the dialogue comes directly from the game, are so nostalgic for game players, which allows for divergences elsewhere in the plot. They are precious reminders of this ambitious series’ origins. It is even more heartfelt to hear Bella Ramsey adopt the same words that Ashley Johnson spoke over a decade ago, taking on some of her accent, some of her intonation, and making those things new.
The direct transfer of game material earlier in the episode balances with unexpected, new story points. When Joel and Ellie arrive in Kansas City, they find themselves in a showdown with locals as in Pittsburgh. Here, the locals aren’t really “hunters”: they are part of the Kansas City insurgency that overthrew FEDRA 10 days before our protagonists arrive. In this way, the series elaborates upon the mythology of The Last of Us world, showing different kinds of resistance. This part of the episode also incorporates the game moment from the hotel where Ellie defends Joel by shooting his attacker. In the adaptation, Ellie of course uses the gun that she secretly took from Bill and Frank’s house, and she uses it to shoot Joel’s attacker whom he could not hear due to his auditory problems. This moment is incredibly emotional, hitting much harder than its counterpart.
Henry and Sam
This new section of the story returns to the game roots once we hear about Sam and Henry. Before they ever come on screen, Kathleen, the leader of the resistance, seem deadset on finding them. She has a vendetta against Henry for providing the intel to FEDRA on her brother’s actions and whereabouts. He was the leader of the resistance before his death. Her mission, hinged on vindictiveness, is to find and kill Henry, as well as all other FEDRA collaborators. Kathleen riles up her soldiers and teammates, including Perry, who is played by Jeffrey Pierce, the original voice actor for Tommy. As Ellie and Joel try to find a way out of the city, they make it to the top of the tallest building in KC, where they awake to Sam and Henry’s guns pointed at them, marking the official introduction to their characters in the show.