As a long-term fan of the video game The Last of Us, I was nervous of a series adaptation. Far too many video games lose their magic when translated into movies or TV shows. Either the adaptation is too faithful to the source material that it doesn’t offer anything new or exciting, or it strays too far from the original that it tells a completely different story.
Fortunately for me and millions of other fans, The Last of Us co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann struck the perfect balance between the two extremes. That’s not surprising given that Druckmann made the video game and knows the material by heart—and the story he had written was already a cinematic masterpiece.
Since the format of The Last of Us series allowed for more expansive storytelling, we get more fleshed out storylines for characters and less gameplay that wouldn’t do well on TV. So, if you went into The Last of Us blind—without having played the game—here’s what the HBO show changed from the original video game:
The Origin and Timeline of the Pandemic
The video game begins with the day of the outbreak, seen in the point of view of Joel’s daughter, Sarah. After she gets killed, the game fast forwards two decades later to 2033 when America is a post-apocalyptic wasteland divided into quarantine zones. It’s never explained how the pandemic started.
HBO’s The Last of Us, though, makes use of cold opens, the very first one being a talk show interview from 1968. Two experts warn that fungi poses a major threat to humanity’s future, then jumps to outbreak day with Sarah, then to 2023 as the present day. Unlike in the game, this didn’t happen out of nowhere and was already a concern.
The cold open for Episode 2 also shows that the pandemic originated from a flour mill in Indonesia. When a fungi expert is consulted by the military, she suggests, “Bomb this city and everyone in it.” This sets up the national and global approach to the impending apocalypse and contextualizes the pandemic on a global scale, which is admittedly lacking in The Last of Us game. Even though it was a global pandemic, we never hear of anything outside of the US.
How Cordyceps Behave and Spread
Joel and other characters in the video game wear gas masks to protect themselves from spores. But cordyceps doesn’t seem to be an airborne threat in the The Last of Us series. Instead, they spread through tendrils and are orally infectious. Simply put, you have to avoid getting bitten at all costs.
The creators also introduced a new behavior in The Last of Us series: cordyceps communicate to an extent through these tendrils. Tess says, “[If you] step on a patch of cordyceps in one place, [they] can wake a dozen infected from somewhere else.”
That’s how she eventually dies in the Capitol building. In the game, Tess uses herself as a shield against FEDRA members. But in episode two, Tess dies after they accidentally awaken a pack of infected. She was already infected at this point, so she sacrifices herself to so Joel and Ellie could escape safely.
Bill And Frank Don’t Have A Happy Ending
As far as endings go, Bill and Frank’s is the closest to a fairy-tale as we can get in this world. The Last of Us video game wasn’t as kind to our favorite couple. Tess’s last instruction to Joel was to get a car from Bill. In Episode 3, Joel arrive to find out that Bill and Frank died together—after they have lived a happy and fruitful life as a couple.
Video game Bill didn’t enjoy such a happy life. He was as paranoid and unapproachable as TV show Bill before Frank changed him. Though it was implied that they were romantic partners in The Last of Us game, Bill and Frank didn’t get along well, and Frank leaves him. After some challenging sequences killing infected (including bloaters), Bill helps Joel and Ellie find a car battery—but not before he finds Frank’s dead body on the other side of town. He commits suicide on his own because he gets infected, and leaves a bitter note for Bill to find.
Bill and Frank’s storyline is one of the biggest deviations that The Last of Us made from the source material. The creators felt it was necessary to add a happy ending for at least one of the pairs of characters, and I’m grateful for this change, even though it left me crying for days.
Kathleen and Crew Weren’t In the Game
In Joel and Ellie’s journey to find the Fireflies in the game, they come across many bandits that they have to fight or evade. The Last of Us didn’t give those raiders much of a backstory, but the TV show changed that.
The group of raiders or rebels answers to a woman named Kathleen, a new character introduced in the HBO series. She leads a resistance group based in Kansas City, which Joel and Ellie pass through. Her entire storyline—rebelling against FEDRA and the grudge she has against Henry—was an interesting addition to The Last of Us. Not only did it give Henry and Sam a deeper backstory as well, but it painted a story of how power and a skewed sense of justice can lead to one’s downfall.
Henry And Sam Were Fugitives in the Show But Survivors in the Game
Because Kathleen didn’t exist in the game, Henry and Sam weren’t really running away from something but towards something. They were also looking for Fireflies when they meet Joel and Ellie in the game, which is why they decided to travel together.
In HBO’s The Last of Us, Henry teams up with Joel out of desperation. Kathleen’s group was closing in on him and Sam, and he wasn’t much of a protector unlike his video game counterpart. Henry promised to guide Joel and Ellie out of the city in exchange for protection.
The creators made some impactful changes to Sam’s character, too. He was much younger than Ellie and had a hearing disability. This created more tension, and a bigger sense of loss when he ultimately turns and gets killed. The scene where he quietly reveals to Ellie that he got bitten—and Ellie tries to heal him with her blood—will never not be heartbreaking.
Tommy & Joel Have A Better Relationship
The opening sequences of The Last of Us video game shows Tommy’s involvement in Joel and Sarah’s life. But during the first half of the game, Joel never mentions Tommy. He only reappears after Joel becomes desperate and has no leads about the Fireflies.
Meanwhile, Tommy is a huge reason Joel agrees to bring Ellie to the Fireflies with Tess in the TV show. He thinks it’s uncharacteristic of Tommy to not contact him on the radio even after he’s left the QZ. So he makes the trip with the intention of finding out what happened to Tommy. It turns out that the community he found in Wyoming didn’t allow radio contact to prevent others from invading them. When Joel and Tommy eventually reunited, it’s clear that their relationship has tension but they are closer than they seemed in the game.
Ellie Gets Bitten Twice
The original The Last of Us never showed Ellie getting bitten. We only see it in the Left Behind DLC, which also gives Ellie’s backstory with FEDRA school and her friend and love interest, Riley.
In Episode 2, Joel, Tess, and Ellie pass through a museum not knowing it’s infested with runners and clickers. Ellie and Tess get separated from Joel, and the two get bitten but Tess doesn’t reveal it until later. This change—Ellie’s second bite—is what Tess uses to convince Joel to complete their mission. It provided a contrast between the two infections, as well as proof that Ellie’s immunity could be the real thing. Because Joel has failed to protect Sarah then and Tess now, he reluctantly agrees to protect Ellie in service of his partner.
Before Joel, Marlene is the closest to a parent Ellie had. Her biological father was never mentioned and her mother, Anna, died within a day of her birth. The Last of Us video game never divulged the details of her death, but she was mentioned a few times in Left Behind.
The finale of Season 1 finally revealed how Anna died: she gets infected as she’s giving birth to Ellie. She waits for Marlene, a close friend, to find her so she could take Ellie and asks her to shoot before she turns. This is how Marlene ends up caring for Ellie and gives a possible explanation to Ellie’s immunity in The Last of Us. Anna cut off the umbilical cord immediately after seeing she was infected, but her tainted blood and antibodies could have already transferred to the baby, which made her resistant to infection.
Joel is Weaker and More Vulnerable
If you’re like me when I played The Last of Us for the first time, you died a lot. You play as Joel and the character goes through a lot of impossibly precarious situations. But the fact that he’s essentially fending off hordes of infected, raiders, FEDRA, and Fireflies with minimal help made him seem like an invincible character.
But that’s simply not realistic. The Last of Us series made Joel a more grounded character by making him more vulnerable both physically and emotionally. He’s hard of hearing. Instead of falling from the second floor and onto a piece of rebar, a stab in the gut knocks him out. And like any person that goes through decades of trauma, he suffers from panic attacks. He later reveals to Ellie that he tried to end his life after Sarah died, another detail The Last of Us show added.
This version of Joel is weak and he knows it. So he asks Tommy to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies instead, fearing that he’ll fail to protect another person he cares about. First there was Sarah, and then Tess. His relationship with Ellie has gotten deeper that he’s afraid to see her die. She’s no longer just cargo. This version of Joel in The Last of Us subverts a video game trope and is a lot harder to stomach, but makes more sense for his character development.
There Are Fewer Infected Shown
There are some who criticized the lack of infected in the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us. It’s valid, given that the gameplay is Joel and Ellie fighting off infected, humans, or both.
However, the TV show pared down the presence of infected by a lot for a reason. They didn’t want to make a zombie show and wanted to focus on the bigger threat: humans. This is why The Last of Us series really worked on fleshing out the characters—what are their motivations? Maybe with the exception of David, who is probably the show’s most terrifying antagonist, most of the characters live in moral ambiguity. We’re able to empathize more with people like Kathleen or Marlene because they have justifiable reasons for doing the things they did. Joel is, perhaps, the most obvious of morally ambiguous characters. He’s an anti-hero who has done many questionable things in his life, but we still riot if he dies.
For me, The Last of Us showed the infected when necessary. Cutting down their presence to the essential meant the series could focus on proving why we’re a bigger threat to humanity, which has always been the overarching theme of The Last of Us.